A title run sparked by defeat

Dec 4, 2018


I’ve never been one to believe a player or team could learn something in a loss that they couldn’t learn in a win. But a loss can pack plenty of punch when it comes to motivation.

Failure can be a powerful motivator.

A year ago a couple of buddies met at Carter Swan’s home and vowed to do everything they could to guarantee that what happened Saturday on the football field would happen.

Fort Hill had just returned from the football state championship game, a 30-26 loss to Dunbar that ended a four-year run of titles. The Sentinels led 26-22 at halftime but were shut out in the second half and came home with the runner-up trophy.

It was a great season and a great game. But no one’s ever come home from a state tournament chanting “We’re No. 2” with glee.

“After we lost the state game, Braeden (Askins) and Wyatt (Brehm) came over to my house and we were talking about making this comeback happen,” Swan said in the media center after Fort Hill’s triumphant return to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

“And we grinded … we grinded in the weight room, and every day we were talking about how we have to go back … we have to win this ring together. We have to become a team and we have to win it.

“We came here, we played hard as a team, and we won it!”

Saturday’s 20-8 victory over Frederick Douglass of Prince George’s County gave Fort Hill its seventh state championship — fifth-most in state tournament history. Only Seneca Valley (12), Damascus (10), Dunbar (10) and Allegany (8) have more. It was Fort Hill’s fifth in a six-year span. No one had ever done that before Saturday.

“We just … ever since we lost last year, we were thinking, ‘we’ve got to come back. This is our last year, and we’ve got to make this last game one to remember,” said Askins.

They made the whole postseason one to remember, dominating four opponents to the tune of 177-28. Of the 192 minutes of postseason football, the Sentinels trailed for only 12:11. And that was by one point during the first half on Saturday.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise based on a couple of basic keys to winning football, postseason or not:

• Running the football. In the four postseason games, Fort Hill ran 164 times for 1,161 yards, an average of seven yards per carry. The opponents? Eighty-two times for 102 yards, a 1.2-yard average.

• Moving the chains. Fort Hill had 57 first downs in the four games. The opponents, 29.

• Turnovers. In four games, and in all sorts of less-than-ideal weather, Fort Hill lost one fumble and threw one interception. They forced their four opponents into 10 turnovers — six interceptions and four fumbles.

That, and plenty more, led to Fort Hill’s fourth undefeated team in six seasons.

A lot more than football was on head coach Todd Appel’s mind after the program’s sixth straight finals appearance. He spoke a lot about the journey, the big picture and the learning experience, as he often does.

He wasn’t asked to compare teams or championships, but quickly made it clear that this team was a special one.

“I’ve said this to these kids hundreds of times: I was sincerely worried about them when they were freshmen because of all the different directions they were going. I was concerned about them as seniors, because they had the capability of going those different directions again,” he said. “But I knew they had good talent. They played football hard. They love football, but they had a way of getting in the way of themselves in the past. But I’ve never had a group that has combined themselves as much as a team as these guys have.

“These kids proved this year that there were no superstars. And they were the best group, as a team, that I think we’ve had in the last six years. And it’s so, so ironic; very ironic that this group became a team like they did.

“They still had some issues today with (two) personal fouls in the first half. And we talked about it at halftime. We said, ‘You’re going back to where you came from, not where you’re going.’ And in the second half, they played good, disciplined football.

“I’m very, very proud of this group. Not just for what they’ve done on the football field, but what they know they can do in life. Because if they stick with something, and work with each other, and be a family, they can do almost anything.”

Douglass, down 13-8, was driving for what the Eagles were hoping would be a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter when Mark Mason, who had scored the team’s touchdown and two-point conversion in the first half, was injured and lost for the game after a five-yard run to the Fort Hill 31.

Three plays later they were stopped by Swan’s sack on fourth-and-2, and Blake Beal scored on a 22-yard run after a drive of nearly six minutes to clinch it.

“The defense, we were kind of bend but not break all year for the most part,” said Douglass coach J.C. Pinkney. “Some teams put some yards on us at times, and there were times we stifled people. Fort Hill … they just kept chopping away. They’re really good at what they do. They execute well.”

Pinkney said his team had been riddled by injuries most of the year.

“Right now, we’re down to smoke and mirrors,” he said. “We’re missing at a minimum five starters. That’s not taking away anything from Fort Hill’s effort or anyone else that we’ve played in the playoffs.

“We were the lowest seed, point-wise, in the whole tournament. We kept grinding. We took the toughest path here. That’s what I’m most proud of. We just didn’t have enough in the tank at the end to finish it off.”

Fort Hill did, and with the textbook 10-play, 68-yard, 5:40 touchdown drive. Fort Hill, which failed on a fake two-point conversion after its second TD, led 13-8 until Beal’s 22-yard run and Danny King’s kick made it a more comfortable 20-8 spread with 3:05 to go.

For the game, the Sentinels ran 46 times and had positive yardage on 41 of them. There were no fumbles.

“Believe it or not, it’s not about football,” Appel said, harping back on the big picture. “It’s about the growth that they make as individuals through four years, and the understanding of what it takes to be a man later in life … how to take care of people later on because you are responsible and you have accountability. I think if you do those things, you can win football games.

“I think football is a microcosm of life. It’s a lot of hard work. You get knocked down. You don’t have success, like last year here. You learn how to work through it, you learn how to lean on God, you learn how to lean on each other. You learn a lot of things.”

“We lost a lot last year,” Tyreke Powell said of the graduating class. “When you lose something, you have to pay attention to what you’ve gained. It’s not always about what you lose; it’s about what you gain. We gained a tremendous ton of athletes. We listened to our coaches and got the job done.

“Coming off the loss last year, not being seniors, it didn’t seem too much to us last year. But when we came here today, it was like ‘If we don’t do this, we’ll remember two losses forever. Not only two losses, but being upset with our last time together.

“It’s not what we wanted, so we didn’t let it happen.”