The lessons during the journey matter most

Dec 4, 2017
by Mike Mathews


It only had been official for about 20 minutes and the realization may have just been starting to set in for some when Fort Hill football coach Todd Appel and several of his team’s seniors met the media following Saturday’s 30-26 loss to Dunbar in the 1A state championship game.

Appel at times wears his emotions on his sleeves, and they’re sometimes underscored in a cracking voice. The sincerest emotions aren’t usually over wins or losses. They’re over players, their effort and sacrifices, and the road they had followed, on and off the field, to get to this point in their lives.

Football is a game; a part of life. An important part, but not the most important. Wins and streaks and championships are nice, and no one has enjoyed more success in each than the Sentinels the last five years.

So when a reporter asked about the passion in his responses, Appel made sure he told him the exact the reason for it.

“It’s not (because of) the loss. It’s the loss of these guys,” he said, referring to the seniors. “We spend a lot of time together. What we do and how we talk to each other … that’s what I’m going to miss. As far as the game’s concerned, I’m happy with the way they performed. The emotion on my face has nothing to do with the loss. It has to do with the loss of friends, and kids. We spend more time together than some people’s families.

“They’ve had some pretty incredible accomplishments. Externally, which is what everybody in the world looks at. God looks at your heart. I think that they’ve grown more in that aspect than the wins on the board.”

The feeling appears to a mutual one, between coaches and players, of thankfulness.

Luke Hamilton, who with fellow tight end Kaleb Harden served up more pancakes the last three years than an IHOP on a busy Saturday morning, agreed. Of all the devastating blocks and touchdowns and wins and titles, what would he remember most?

“Having the Fort Hill program create us as men. Moving to the next stage of our lives, it’s going to be pretty easy with the way the program has built us up.”

And Troy Banks, the beneficiary of a lot of those pancake blocks? “The bond you make with the underclassmen and other seniors. We’re constantly together. It’s a bond you’ll never find anywhere else.”

A coach is a teacher first and foremost. The lessons remembered most aren’t always the ones about a game.

“Luke said it would be easier. Nothing’s easy, buddy,” Appel said with a smile. “You might have a few more tools, but everything’s kind of hard. You have to fall back on what you’ve learned, as far as a person. I hope that’s the thing they’ve learned the most.

“I hope they just don’t hang their hat on four state championships and playing Dunbar to the wire for a fifth. I don’t think they will. They’re pretty good people. There’s more to life than just high school football.”

It may not have been easy, but one thing Fort Hill did make look easy was playing football.

The Sentinels:

• Played in five straight state finals, a state record;

• Won four championships in a row, tying the state record;

• Won 19 straight playoff games, a state record;

• Had a 32-game winning streak, a school and area record;

• Won 66 games of 69 games the last five seasons.

No one started and played in more games or made more tackles in Fort Hill history than Brayden Poling. Four titles in four years would have been the perfect ending to his career. But three championships and a runner-up isn’t too shabby, either.

“Being a four-year starter and all that, I don’t really think about it. I just suit up and go out and play. I just worry about winning games, the team and my coach … I just try to go out and do the best for our team and community and just try to make them proud.”

What kept Fort Hill from a fifth title in a row was Dunbar, which has won more playoff games (56) and the second-most state titles (10) in MPSSAA history. Seneca Valley, with 12, has won the most. Fort Hill has 51 playoff wins and six championships.

Dunbar’s speed and big-play ability was the one thing the Sentinels couldn’t match, but they nearly overcame it.

The Poets’ four touchdown drives covered 302 yards in only 12 plays. Time of possession, for the longest drive: 1:31. The shortest: 19 seconds. The four combined: 3:40.

Dunbar had possession for only 1:48 in the first quarter, and yet led 16-8. They ended up with 42 offensive plays and 429 yards, but only 16:02 in possession. Fort Hill had possession for 62 plays and 31:58, and had 245 yards.

“When we throw the ball in the flats we don’t expect to go 80 yards. We expect to gain five or six, move the chains,” Appel said in describing the Poets’ dangerous quickness.

The four touchdown plays accounted for 278 of Dunbar’s 429 yards. The Sentinels defense allowed only 151 yards on the other 38 plays, a measly average of 3.9 yards per play. So the Sentinels kept the Poets in check most of the day, except for the big touchdown plays.

Andre Brandon scored on the first play, a 68-yard run, then oddly, didn’t run the ball again.

The first play didn’t seem to faze Fort Hill.

“Lackey broke a big one on the first play last week,” Poling recalled. “It takes a few plays for our defense to settle in. Once we do, we’re pretty sound. We had to get used to the speed Dunbar had.”

Fort Hill did all it could to keep the ball from Dunbar’s potent offense. The Sentinels led in first downs 21-14, were 3 for 3 on fourth down conversions, which included a fake punt. There was a big defensive stand after a fumble in the third quarter, and another midway through the fourth that kept hopes alive.

But in the end, it wasn’t meant to be, unlike the 1-point wins the previous two weeks over Allegany and Lackey. The last three playoff games were decided by a total of just six points. The Sentinels, who scored on all four first-half possessions on Saturday, had two punts, a lost fumble and an interception in the second.

“I’m not really sure how difficult it was to stop their offense,” Harden said. “We don’t really worry about it. We just go out and try to make plays. We never settle on one thing. It’s just whoever can get there, makes plays. That’s all we’re focused on. They came out and did what they had to do. We did what we had to do. They were just the better team.”

Two journeys ended Saturday. The Poets had one too, they said. Their journey, ironically, began in Cumberland, where they had lost to Allegany 49-42 in the season opener three months ago.

“We feel blessed to have the state championship. After the Allegany game, we huddled in the locker room and we said we were not going to lose another game,” said quarterback Jared Lewis, who threw for 252 yards and three touchdowns. He also threw for a 2-point conversion and ran for another.

“We were going to do what we had to do. We prayed about it. We went on our journey to get another state championship, and we did it.”