Sophomore running back Raekwon Gray’s most impressive play this season didn’t come in a game in which he had 209 yards and three touchdowns, or the one in which he made five trips to the end zone. Instead, it came Friday on an untimed down and he never touched the ball.
In overtime during the first round of playoffs against undefeated Damascus, Urbana quarterback Donovan Pannell took the snap and turned to hand the ball to Gray.
Just about everyone in Montgomery County expected that play, and the entire Damascus defense bit on the fake, leaving senior tight end Brendan Wharton wide open in the end zone for the game-winning two-point conversion in a stunning 24-23 upset.
“You’re on the road, you’re in a hostile environment, they had the momentum going into overtime and then they scored on their first play, I didn’t want them to have the ball anymore,” Urbana coach Ryan Hines said afterward.
It’s easy to see why Damascus crashed so hard to stop Gray. On the previous play, he had scored his second touchdown of the game on a 3-yard burst which ran his total up to 145 yards on the night.
“I think everyone in the stadium probably thought we were going to give it to [Gray],” Hines said.
But giving it to Gray wasn’t always an option. After an impressive freshman season in which “he was a full-go after week 6,” Hines said, there were lofty expectations for the sophomore. But in late June he was ruled academically ineligible for at least the first five weeks of the season, and his view of the game was no longer through a facemask in the backfield, but from the top row of the bleachers.
So from mid-August to early October, Gray would go to school, practice with the team, and then stay a while longer to study. After five weeks of repeating the arduous process, his GPA skied to a 3.5 and he was given the go-ahead to get back on the football field.
“It hurt really bad,” he said of watching his team from the stands. “But it made me even hungrier and when I came back it kind of showed.”
Not that Gray wasn’t contributing as much as he could when he was out — he role-played as the upcoming team’s running back to prepare the Hawks — but his contributions were rather limited as he couldn’t suit up on Friday nights.
Then, in an Oct. 5 matchup with Middletown, he was back on the field. Although he was quiet against the Knights, going for just 57 yards on 11 carries, Oakdale and Frederick soon would discover just how much more he could add to the Hawks’ once bland and struggling offense.
The Bears were the first victim, suffering through a 209-yard, three touchdown coming out party from the sophomore.
“Gray is special, you saw some of those runs, he should have been tackled in the backfield and he got away,” Hines said afterwards. “He is a playmaker.”
He was just getting started. The next week, Frederick surrendered 181 yards and five touchdowns on just 16 carries.
“[Play calling] is definitely easier [when Gray is in],” Hines said.
In games that Gray has been in the backfield instead of the student section, the Hawks are averaging 30 points per contest, nearly nine points more than when he is not. With Gray, Urbana put up the second-most points allowed by Middletown, Damascus and Frederick and the third-most relented by Oakdale.
Much of the pressure that Pannell, a sophomore, had been burdened with has been relaxed and the mere presence of Gray in the backfield has opened up the option for play-actions, a lesson Damascus learned about two seconds too late.
“He brings the threat of being able to take it to the end zone,” Hines said. “The holes don’t have to be as big, the blocks don’t have to be as long. He’s explosive.”
As Calvin Reighard kneeled down and tossed the ball to the ref on Friday, signaling a 12-7 Seneca Valley win against North Hagerstown, the Screaming Eagle faithful rained down a victory roar that was soon replaced by chants of “Let’s go Urbana!”
At the moment, all they knew was that the Hawks were holding onto a 16-8 lead against the only team to beat them this season. They would see the winner in the next round, and they could do without a rematch with the Hornets.
But what many in that crowd on Friday were likely unaware of is that Urbana isn’t the middling 3-3 squad it was in early October and that the only team the Hawks have lost to with Gray in the lineup is unbeaten and defending state champ Middletown.
Regardless, they got their wish. And on Friday they’ll see if that was really the right thing to wish for.