Zack Alkire wins Coach of the Year

Jan 12, 2022
Alex Rychwalski

CUMBERLAND — When Zack Alkire took the Fort Hill head coaching job two years ago, there were those who doubted him.

Yet the big red machine kept chugging, and Alkire guided the Sentinels through an unspeakable tragedy and a pandemic to an undefeated season and Fort Hill’s eighth state championship.

For that, Alkire was voted Coach of the Year by his contemporaries in the area.

“It’s pretty exciting to be able to go out and do that in a year where Allegany County had a revival of a couple of great football programs,” Alkire said of being given the top coaching award. “Bryan (Hansel) did a good job being able to turn it around and get Allegany winning again, and Ryan (Patterson) taking Mountain Ridge further than they’ve ever gone before. It’s a big honor.

“For me, it’s more a credit to the assistant coaches playing big roles. I was able to delegate different things to different coaches. I was able to pull strings here and there. Those guys made everything work on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. It’s just as much their award as mine.”

Patterson and Devon Orndorff (East Hardy) also received votes.

Fort Hill capped a perfect 12-0 season with a 51-31 rout of Mountain Ridge in the 1A state championship game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Dec. 4. With eight titles, the Sentinels are now tied with rival Allegany for most in Cumberland football history.

The Sentinels finished first in the area poll and No. 11 in the state media poll — third among public schools in Maryland behind only 4A powers Quince Orchard and Wise.

However, the 2021 campaign won’t be one only remembered for wins, rankings and accolades. It will also be remembered for how Fort Hill overcame the sorrow of a fallen teammate.

Days before Homecoming, Saiquan Jenkins, a defensive back and kick returner on the Fort Hill football team, was murdered by a fellow student. The Sentinels could’ve pulled out of their bout against Allegany, and everybody, on both sides, would’ve understood.

Yet the player-driven culture Alkire, his staff and players had cultivated decided to suit up for their fallen teammate. Not just to win Homecoming — which they did, 42-6 — but to find glory at the end of the season.

Fort Hill rattled off five straight blowouts to raise a banner for No. 3.

“That’s something nobody should go through,” Alkire said. “Kids shouldn’t have to see that. Unfortunately, that’s going to be something that they’re going to have to live with for a long time.

“Football was second after that. They were using football to get their minds off things. The kids dedicated the rest of their season to ‘Quan. That was their focus. They came out, got to the playoffs and used that as a driving point the rest of the year.”

Alkire wasn’t sure how his players would react at first. Would they play with too much emotion and crumble under the stress of it all? They were just kids after all. But it quickly became evident to the second-year head coach that his team wouldn’t fold.

“Before games, I always come out with the second group of kids, when the lineman join skill kids,” Alkire said. “When they came together, the pregame pump-up thing was just as loud as it always was. And all my worries went away. The closer they got to their goal, the more focused they got.”

Even before what happened to Jenkins, there were doubters coming into the season.

Fort Hill — trying to continue the tradition of dominance left by Todd Appel, winner of 142 games and five state titles as the Sentinels’ coach for 12 years — was coming off its first-ever loss to Mountain Ridge in the COVID-shortened spring season.

The doubters weren’t just coming from the outside looking in, there were cynics within the program too, and they didn’t go away when the Sentinels struggled in a 17-7 win over Northern in the opener.

“A lot of people thought the program was going to collapse,” Alkire said.

Just one week later, Fort Hill toppled Old Mill — a team a couple of years removed from a trip to the 4A state semifinals — 28-13 at Greenway Avenue Stadium. The win wasn’t just important for public perception, but for the players to realize just how high their ceiling was.

“We were able to win that game with a couple kids out,” Alkire said. “We realized we were a lot better than what people thought we’d be.”

But Fort Hill would hit another bump in the road. After blasting Southern 69-0 in Week 3, the Sentinels were gutted when a Southern player tested positive for COVID-19 following the game.

When Fort Hill headed up to Hollidaysburg the next week, 10 players, including seven defensive starters and nearly its entire offensive and defensive lines, had to sit out quarantining from the close contact.

With backups, junior varsity kids and players lining up out of position — like Blake White, a linebacker, who was forced to play defensive line — Fort Hill notched a miraculous victory.

The Sentinels led 35-7 at halftime, but Hollidaysburg exploited their lack of depth, capitalizing on Fort Hill’s fatigue to pull within 35-33 with two minutes left.

Fort Hill denied the two-point try and deflected a late Hail Mary attempt to escape with a victory against all odds.

One week later, Fort Hill crushed Frederick County power Oakdale, 42-7, and then toppled Mountain Ridge, 37-7, in the most-anticipated area high school football game in recent memory.

Fort Hill would then rout Smithsburg to improve to 7-0 to enter its bye before Homecoming. That’s when Alkire and the Sentinels encountered their stiffest obstacle.

Alkire isn’t the only person deserving of credit for how Fort Hill responded to Jenkins’ death. The community came out in droves with support, beginning with a candlelight vigil held at Grace Brethren Church later that night.

The church was at maximum capacity with students mourning the loss, and outside, a group of more than a hundred-strong came to stand in the cold and pay their respects.

From that point on, Fort Hill was more than just a football team — it was a family.

For Alkire, who watched his senior class advance through the program and overcome things nobody should have to overcome in their lifetimes, he couldn’t have been prouder.




Fort Hill head coach Zack Alkire celebrates with team statistician Josh Mitchell after beating Mountain Ridge, 51-31, in the 1A state championship game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. Alkire was voted Coach of the Year.
PHOTO: Ken Nolan/Times-News