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North answers call, beats Fort Hill

November 15, 2003|by MARK KELLER

keller@herald-mail.com

Even after an unbeaten regular season, the North Hagerstown football team still had something to prove when they played their first postseason game in 13 years Friday at School Stadium.

By the time the second quarter was over, the Hubs had made their point.

North scored four unanswered touchdowns in the first half on the way to a 33-13 win over Fort Hill in the Class 2A West semifinals to extend its magical season by one more week.

The Hubs will play at South Carroll in the region final next weekend after dismissing the notion their 10-0 record in the regular season was the result of a soft schedule by beating one of the most tradition-rich programs in the state.

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"That's one of the biggest things that motivates us. It just seems like we can't get any credit," said North tailback Bryan Slater, who ran for 170 yards and two touchdowns. "Hopefully, this will be the one that does it for us. If not, I hope it's next week."

The Hubs (11-0) used big plays - including four scores in seven plays at one point - to take a 26-0 lead at halftime and silence the sizable Fort Hill crowd in the visitors' bleachers.

North coach Danny Cunningham, who quarterbacked the Hubs in their only other playoff appearance in 1990, said he told his team the importance of getting out to a quick start in a postseason game.

"We talked about that playoff game (in 1990), and Northern (Calvert) took it to us in the first half," Cunningham said. "We thought if we could get some points early and keep them out we would be OK."

On their second possession, the Hubs orchestrated a 9-play, 66-yard scoring drive that nearly stalled twice. Slater preserved the drive with a 10-yard sweep on third-and-5, then Ryan Rau connected with Derrick Keith on a fourth-and-8 screen pass.

Keith eluded one tackler and bolted down the Fort Hill sideline for a 34-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

Things quickly went from bad to worse for the Sentinels (9-2). After the Hubs nearly recovered a bouncing ball on the kickoff, North's Philip Johns recovered an Andre Pope fumble at the Fort Hill 13. Two plays later, Rigo Valentin scored on a 6-yard run.

After regaining possession on downs, the Hubs needed just three plays to reach the end zone again. On third-and-5, Slater ran a sweep to the right and cut back, finding a seam and blowing past the defense for a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter.

"The whole game, we weren't running any sweeps. I was running through the middle," Slater said. "Once I ran the sweep, I made a couple cuts and the field opened up."

A 10-yard Fort Hill punt gave North the ball at their own 41 and it took Keith just one play to add to the lead, running the same groove as Slater for a 59-yard touchdown and the big lead at the break.

"(North) came out ready to play and made the big plays," Fort Hill coach Barry Lattimer said. "We did a poor job tackling, a poor job blocking. For whatever reason, we didn't come out to play at the beginning."

The Hubs defense came up big on several occasions in the first half, getting an interception by Bernard Artillus deep in North territory and a pass breakup by Valentin in the end zone.

Valentin's defensive gem came on a play which also drew an offensive pass interference call on the Sentinels. That flag led to an unsportsmanlike flag on the Fort Hill bench, followed by an offensive face mask foul on the next play. By the time the flags stopped flying, Fort Hill had gone from second-and-goal on the North 9 to third-and-goal from the Fort Hill 46.

The Sentinels were more effective on the ground in the second half, putting more of the load on Pope's shoulders. Pope carried 10 times in a 13-play, 65-yard drive that ended with Denny Hockman's juggling catch of Branden Giffen's pass for a touchdown.

Time, however, was not on the side of the Sentinels. The long drive took more than 8 minutes, which played into the hands of the Hubs.

"I was happy with that," Cunningham said. "Let them take some time off the clock. That helped us a lot in the second half."

The Sentinels added another score in the fourth quarter on Kevin Page's 8-yard run to cut the North lead to 26-13 with 5:01 left.

North struggled offensively in the second half as the Sentinels started jamming up the middle and blitzing their linebackers. They held the Hubs to just two first downs in the second half, but the second first down was a monster.

On third-and 15 from the Hubs 36, Slater again broke free on a sweep, outrunning Pope for a 64-yard score to seal the win for North.

"They were sending the linebackers hard, and that play came from up top (from the coaches)," Cunningham said. "They said we could get outside on the quick toss."

The win ended the Hubs' 13-game losing streak against Fort Hill dating back to 1984. And just as North put that streak to rest, Cunningham said he hopes his team answered those who questioned them.

"I think we opened some eyes up tonight," Cunningham said. "This is a good, solid team, very well-balanced. This was a huge win."

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