Harford teams on title mission

Rooting for one another, Aberdeen, Joppatowne chasing 2A, 1A crowns

High Schools

December 05, 2003|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

For Joppatowne, it was the game that gave the Mariners an identity.

For Aberdeen, it was a mistake-filled, frustrating 48 minutes that shattered any aura of invincibility.

As both Harford County teams look ahead to playing this weekend for a state championship in two of four classes defined by school enrollment, they can look back to a late-September game that served as a turning point for each.

The Mariners beat the Eagles, 28-21, halting an 0-2 start and dealing Aberdeen its only loss. That night, one team learned how to win, and the other learned how it could lose.

"We told the kids that they are going to decide where the season goes with the effort against Aberdeen," said Greg Komondor, coach of the No. 11 Mariners (7-5), who play Beall, from Frostburg in Allegany County, at 4 p.m. tomorrow in the Class 1A final at M&T Bank Stadium. "When we beat Aberdeen, [our players] really believed if we played together, we could win."

No. 4 Aberdeen (11-1) will be on the field first in the Class 2A final, with an 11 a.m. matchup with Potomac, from Oxon Hill in Prince George's County.

"If we didn't lose that Joppatowne game, we wouldn't have done as well this year," said Eagles senior wide receiver Phillip Brown. "That showed us that we couldn't just show up and expect to win."

In that loss, Aberdeen committed 14 penalties and lost four of seven fumbles.

Running back/linebacker Carl Stokes, one of a number of Eagles seniors celebrating their last homecoming game that night, was so distraught that he threatened to sleep on the field.

Quarterback Erin Henderson shouldered much of the blame, even though coach Joe Harbert assured the senior that there was enough to go around.

"I thought a lot of it was my fault," said Henderson, who has taken it easy in practice this week while nursing a sprained ankle but will play tomorrow. "But I told the guys that I'll never let them down like that again."

Henderson hasn't, and the team - which admits to pointing fingers when things have gone bad in the past - has avoided further missteps.

Aberdeen, winner of nine straight with last week's 6-0 rain-soaked victory over South Carroll, finds itself one game away from the school's first state football title.

Harbert, a new head coach when the Eagles' seniors were freshmen, recalls many of them saying four years ago that their goal was to win a state title before they graduated.

"I've seen these guys grow up," Harbert said. "For the past few weeks, I've been telling them that if they don't play hard and well, it's all over. And I've been thinking this week that it's over after this weekend, regardless. ... But they have quite an opportunity."

As do the youthful Mariners, whose confidence is soaring, thanks to a power running game and a defense that has found its form at a crucial time.

Buoyed by the decision to move Anthony Preston to quarterback before the Aberdeen game, the Mariners found their identity by playing smash-mouth football.

There have been three losses since the Aberdeen victory, but the Mariners have never strayed from the game plan that worked so well against the Eagles.

And this was a year the Mariners, with just two starters back, were to be rebuilding.

"We hoped we'd go far, but I just didn't know if this team had it in them," said senior running back Brent Cash, who has 1,731 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. "But our coach told us to find it within ourselves, and that inspired us to turn around the whole season."

The Mariners, who downed top-seeded Dunbar, 21-0, last week, didn't panic when they lost their last two regular-season games, stumbling into the playoffs with a 4-5 record.

"The great thing after Aberdeen is we had kids come up to us and say thank you for believing in us," Komondor said.

The rivalry between Joppatowne and Aberdeen has turned to revelry this week. Harbert and Komondor have spoken a couple of times, and the Mariners and Eagles players say they'll be pulling for each other.

"At the beginning of the Dunbar game, they were almost laughing at us," said Mariners offensive lineman Jeremiah Waters. "You could just tell that people don't respect Harford County football. But with us and Aberdeen there together, it puts a spotlight on our county. There's camaraderie there."

Aberdeen's Brown feels the same way: "Even though they beat us, we're on the bandwagon. They deserve it. They've worked [hard], just like we have."

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