Maybe it was the two decade long title drought. Maybe it was the new face on the sidelines coaching. For whatever the reason, Wilde Lake High’s football team, winners of five Maryland state championships, couldn’t buy respect in the Class 3A playoffs.
Maybe it was the week 10 loss to Atholton. A week later: Wilde Lake 21, Atholton 7, 3A East Region semifinals.
Maybe it was the Wildecats inability to beat River Hill, which surpassed them as the premier program in Howard County. Final score: Wilde Lake 13, River Hill 7, 3A East Region finals.
Maybe it was Damascus, the state’s No. 1 team and odds-on favorite to win the state championship. Final score: Wilde Lake 21, Damascus 14, 3A state semifinals.
Even after that, there were still a lot of empty seats on the Wildecats’ bandwagon as they reached M & T Bank Stadium for the state title game Thursday evening.
“No one in our school, all we had the coaching staff and this team,” said Wilde Lake running back/linebacker EJ Gilman. “Every week, I got ‘you’re going to lose,’ from our classmates.”
The so-called doubters were left again scratching their heads, and Wilde Lake got the ultimate last laugh Thursday. The No. 5 Wildecats completed their improbable playoff run with a 21-14 victory over No. 3 Franklin before an estimated crowd of 3,200 at “The Big ATM.”
Khalil Viera rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown, and threw for another for Wilde Lake (11-3), and Gilman added a rushing score. Junior wideout Ian Thomas pulled down a pair of Joey Dorsey’s passes for touchdown for Franklin (11-3).
In winning its first state championship since 1997, Wilde Lake joins Dunbar as the most successful Baltimore area public program with six titles each. The Howard County program becomes just the fifth in the state with at least six trophies.
The Wildecats again leaned on its running game and creating turnovers to cross the championship altar. It’s not fancy. Some may call it boring.
“Look at me, I’m a boring guy,” quipped Wilde Lake coach Mike Harrison during the post-game press conference.
Harrison actually pulled a couple of surprises out the play book that helped pushed Wilde Lake out to an insurmountable lead. After an interception by Anthony Miller set the Wildecats deep into Franklin’s terrority at the 16 with 54 seconds remaining in the first half. A pair of runs advanced the ball to the 9 for a third-and-2.
Wilde Lake quarterback Joe Kelly pitched the ball left to Viera, who took a couple of steps and threw the ball to the end zone. Six-foot-4 senior receiver Eron Pruitt pulled the ball down in the back of the end zone for a touchdown with 34 seconds left.
“We felt the cornerback was biting up in there trying to be a run support guy. We said ‘go ahead and take a shot,’” said Harrison. “If it had been an incomplete pass, we could’ve attempted a field goal. We thought if we could Eron behind the corner we could steal a touchdown.
We practiced that day every offensive practice this year. It’s one of those types of things you might complete once a month in practice because the defensive backs know it coming. It just worked beautifully on the field.”
Harrison said the Wildecats unsuccessfully tried an alternate version in the first playoff game against Atholton. Viera, who’s the backup quarterback, was relatively confident the play would succeed.
“We went over it this week in practice and I throw the ball a lot in practice,” said Viera. “The only thing I worried about was if the cornerback was going to come after me or stay with Eron. I had to take a make quick decision.”
“We didn’t see it on film before,” said Franklin coach Anthony Burgos. “We were in good position, but when a team’s running the ball so well, you kind of get sucked in. They’re not the greatest passing team, but we felt we had to make sure we stayed awake and not give up the big play which we did.”
On the Wildecats’ opening possession of the second half, Viera took a handoff from Gilman on the latter end of a double handoff. He shot through the middle, bounce off a couple of tackles and broke free for a 36-yard touchdown, capping an eight-play, 65-yard drive. Kelly’s two-point run to the corner, extended the Wildecats’ lead to 21-7 with 5:51 left in the third.
“I just saw a cut back lane,” said Viera. “I got hit once and was going down. I just put my hand down and popped back up and saw the end zone.”
“In our playbook, we tried to throw those out things,” said Harrison. “We thought in the second half we could get them [Franklin] with misdirection.”
More than content with grinding the game out, Wilde Lake’s defense twice stopped the Indians on fourth down. But Franklin, which overcame two touchdown deficits against North Harford and Huntingtown the previous two games, weren’t completely done.
With 2:18 remaining in regulation, Thomas, who recently attracted the interest of University of Oregon, made a tremendous catch in the right corner of the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown. The Reisterstown school went for an onsides kick, but junior Antoine Barnes collected the ball for Wilde Lake, ending Franklin’s latest comeback attempt.
“We made mistakes on offense and in these type of games, you have to play perfect,” said Franklin senior quarterback Joey Dorsey, who threw two interceptions and. “We left a couple of opportunities on the board.”
Harrison, who succeeded legendary coach Doug DuVall last season, admitted he wasn’t sure how his team would respond after pulling off the upset of the state tournament last Friday at Damascus. After being told they weren’t simply good enough, Wilde Lake is state champions.
Now maybe they can get a little respect.
“After the loss to Atholton we were excited to be one of the top 16 in the state, but the kids made the commitment to be one of the top eight,” said Harrison. “We get a chance to play River Hill again and ‘hey, we’d like to be one of the top four teams in the state,’ and they practiced harder. Going into Damascus, you saw it in their eyes they didn’t realize they were playing a team the caliber of a Damascus, and all of the sudden they were one of the best two teams in the state.
They came in here tonight and they wanted to be No. 1, and I think it was their character, their heart, their dedication and determination and was able to pull this thing off.”
CLICK RELATED VIDEOS TAB AT THE TOP OF THE ARTICLE FOR HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE GAME!
Class 3A State Championship
No. 5 Wilde Lake 21, No. 3 Franklin 14
Wilde Lake-Gilman 3 run (Kelly kick)
|Franklin-Thomas 4 pass from Dorsey (Gibson kick)|
|Wilde Lake-Pruitt 9 pass from Viera (kick failed)|
|Wilde Lake-Viera 36 run (Kelly run)|
|F-Thomas 34 pass from Dorsey (Gibson kick)|