Line Mountain Downs Newport 13 10, Picks Up First Victory Of The Season,

Dec. 3—CUMBERLAND, Md. — When Fort Hill and Mountain Ridge squared off at Greenway Avenue Stadium in October, it was the most anticipated area matchup in years.

The Miners and Sentinels, both 5-0, were Nos. 1 and 2 in the area rankings. The game drew an announced attendance of 4,016 — the highest total since Keyser came to Greenway in 2015.

But No. 2 Mountain Ridge (11-1) didn't quite show up, and No. 1 Fort Hill (11-0) rolled to a 37-7 victory to cement itself atop all of Class 1A. Now, the two Western Maryland schools meet for all the marbles at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. with a state title on the line.

"The kids are super excited about getting to go down, it's been their goal all season long," Fort Hill head coach Zack Alkire said. "The more that we won, the more that goal came into focus. With Quan (Jenkins) passing, they dedicated the rest of the season to Quan. Want to win a state championship for him.

"We need to execute the way we've been executing since the beginning of the season. We need to be sound defensively. We need to be able to get pressure on Bryce (Snyder) and be able to contain the run. ... If we do that, I think we'll come away with a win.

"We've added a few wrinkles here and there that a lot of the guys are excited about."

A win would be the Sentinels' eighth state championship — six in 1A, and one each in 2A and 3A. They would also tie city rival Allegany, who also holds eight state crowns.

It would be the Miners' first in school history, though Valley won twice and Beall was runner-up four times.

In that Oct. 8 matchup, Mountain Ridge couldn't get out of its own way, turning the ball over on each of its first two possessions as Fort Hill ran to a 17-0 lead. The Miners scored a late first-half touchdown, but the Sentinels scored all 20 of the second half's points to win running away.

The Fort Hill pass rush was brutal, as the Sentinels sacked Snyder, Mountain Ridge's highly touted quarterback, eight times — led by TJ Lee (3), Landen Keech (2) and Carter Hess (2).

Snyder — who is approaching the area record in passing yards with 2,165 for the season — completed just 5 of 15 passes for 35 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

The senior's first interception was made by Jenkins, who passed away on Oct. 28. Watching the Mountain Ridge game film has been the most difficult part of what is usually the most exciting week of the year.

"That was the toughest thing for me this week," Alkire said. "When we watched as a coaching staff, it was very eerie and a little upsetting watching that film. He was a big part of what we did, especially that game.

"Since Quan's passing, it's been more about relationships, and trying to rebuild those kids more than it has been football. ... The last two weeks, we've tried to gear towards football stuff, and the kids have responded well."

After that tragic day, Fort Hill made it a mission to raise a state championship banner for its fallen teammate. To do that, it'll have to fend off a hungry Mountain Ridge squad.

To get to Annapolis, Fort Hill defeated No. 4 Edmondson, 43-14, in the semifinals. The Sentinels fell behind 14-7 during the opening quarter, but they rattled off 36 unanswered to cruise to their 15th state title game.

Alkire hopes facing some adversity on the gridiron after a season of blowouts will give Fort Hill an edge in the championship.

"Edmondson gave them their best shot," Alkire said of his team. "Edmondson took the lead not only on one possession but on two possessions. ... Our kids were able to pick things up on the next offensive possession. Tanner (Wertz) made a big tough run and we didn't look back.

"It made me feel a lot better, that if things were to go south in the championship game, they have been tested. They do know what it feels like to have to play from behind. ... With them, they're gamers. They're going to play regardless."

Wertz was a big reason for the turnaround, rushing for a game-high 138 yards and two TDs on 10 carries. The junior has come on as of late, and he's exceeded the 100-yard mark in 3 of 5 games. Expect him to play a major part come Saturday.

"He's one of those kids that doesn't need the limelight," Alkire said. "For him, it's just getting the job done. ... When it's his turn to play, he goes out and plays and he does it really well. He's earned a lot more playing time, and I think you'll see that this week coming up. He's going to be one of those feature backs."

It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows, as Fort Hill fullback and linebacker Blake White — an Area Player of the Year candidate — was forced to leave the game with a shoulder injury.

The senior first exited and returned after a trainer worked on him, but he was forced to leave the contest again and was taken to the hospital. Before the end of the game, he returned to the sideline to be with his teammates.

"I don't know who he contacted, but every time I go to the hospital I'm there for hours," Alkire said.

White has been practicing all week in a non-contact capacity, and he's expected to play on Saturday against Mountain Ridge if he doesn't re-aggravate the injury.

So far so good.

"We're going to play it safe with him all week, we're not going to allow him to hit anybody," Alkire said. "We're getting him reps. We told the defensive guys, 'Hey, don't tackle him. When he comes to block you, it's like freeze tag just play dead.' Everyone's done a good job of that."

The Sentinel faithful, always demanding excellence from their team, have raised questions during the postseason about Fort Hill's lack of a passing attack.

In three playoff games, the Sentinels have completed just three passes. Against Edmondson, they attempted only one throw, a 49-yard dime from Bryce Schadt to Breven Stubbs for a touchdown on the first offensive series for Fort Hill.

Sure, the Sentinels haven't thrown it a ton this year, but when they have they've been successful. Though Schadt has completed just 28 passes, they've gone for 18.6 yards a pop and seven scores.

"We'll throw it when we need to, and I have confidence that coach (Richie) Shook is going to pick the right times," Alkire said. "We do think we have the advantage in terms of speed on the outside. It's gonna be difficult for them to cover us, and we do think that we can take advantage of the pass.

"We've been repping it all week. I actually had one of our linemen look at us like, 'Are we going to run the ball at all today in practice?'

"I was a tight end, I was a receiving tight end. I like to throw the ball. I always had a saying that, 'If you wanna go, you gotta throw.' But we're going to do what we think is best for the team. During these last three games, it's been run the football."

On the other side of the ball, Fort Hill's defense has been tough to crack.

The Sentinels are allowing just 11 points a game, led by White who has 91 tackles (50 solo), 16 tackles for loss, an interception and a fumble recovery.

With Hess (11 tackles for loss, six sacks) and Lee (12 sacks and seven tackles for loss) dominating the line of scrimmage, and Anthony Palmisano (four interceptions), Tavin Willis (80 tackles, two interceptions) and Stubbs locking down receivers on the outside, Mountain Ridge will have its hands full.

Since struggling against the Sentinels, the Miners have found a running game. In Mountain Ridge's semifinal victory over Perryville, 433 of its nearly 600 yards came on the ground.

Jaden Lee is a big reason why. Rushing for at least 100 yards in each of the previous three games. He has 1,117 yards and 17 touchdowns on 158 carries this year.

At quarterback, Snyder is nearly as dangerous with his legs as he is with his arm, and he has 422 yards and 10 TDs on the ground this year.

"I think they'll be a lot more balanced this time," Alkire said. "When you look back at the last couple years when they've had success against us, especially in the spring, they were able to run the football. Their big plays against us the first game were running the football.

"They've made an adjustment putting a lot of their bigger guys on one side of the ball, and I think that we're going to see more run than they did the first time around."

One package, in particular, Mountain Ridge has turned to more often in recent weeks is the Flexbone, which it's used in short-yardage situations to great effect. Connor Guy, the fullback in that formation, has seven touchdowns.

"You hear this adage a lot where teams that are spread have a difficult time getting the tough yards," Alkire said. "It's fourth-and-short, or third- or fourth-and-goal. You get down inside the red zone and they struggle a little bit more.

"Typically when they get into it, it is in those situations. ... I expect to see some of that. Jaden Lee's a great running back. Connor Guy gets in there when they move Jaden around other places. Their line is big up front, they're really physical. They're not afraid.

"If they don't have success through the air, that's something we could see."

Win or lose, Fort Hill and Mountain Ridge had the option of getting a fire and police escort home from Annapolis.

Alkire went to White, his senior leader, to find out if the Sentinels would still want an escort if they came up short of their eighth state title.

"He was like, 'I don't want the escort, but it's not my decision.'" Alkire said. "He went and talked to the team, and they came up with that same decision. He could've just said 'nah,' but he wanted to involve his teammates too."

Win as a team and lose as a team. That's how it's always been at Fort Hill. The Sentinels plan on being the team with the escort home after 48 minutes with Mountain Ridge on Saturday.

Alex Rychwalski is a sports reporter at the Cumberland Times-News. Follow him on Twitter @arychwal.

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America Together: Uplifting images from across the country