This story was corrected on Nov. 23, 2013. An explanation follows.It started as a nightmare for the Paint Branch High School football team.
But three hours, 14 touchdowns and a field goal later, the Panthers were champions.
Playing against Perry Hall in the Class 4A North Region finals, Paint Branch (11-1) overcame a 26-6 first-half deficit and escaped with a 51-48 victory Friday in Burtonsville. Paint Branch will host Northwest in next week's 4A state semifinals. The Jaguars (10-2) defeated Quince Orchard (10-2) 28-20 to win the 4A West Region.
“I've never even been through anything like that. I kind of felt like I was in the NFL,” Panthers senior quarterback Gaston Cooper said. “It was just surreal for me.”
Cooper threw over 300 yards and scored four touchdowns, but his biggest play was a short pass to Kevin Koomson on fourth-and-6 late in the fourth quarter. The clutch conversion landed the Panthers deep inside Perry Hall territory and set up kicker Sam Stewart's 20-yard game-winning field goal in the closing seconds.
“We knew what we had in the second half. We conditioned for this, we practiced for this,” said Stewart, who converted six of seven extra points in addition to the field goal. “That's what good teams do, they come back in the second half.”
Paint Branch coach Michael Nesmith described his team's start as a “worst-case scenario.” The Panthers trailed 33-20 at halftime. The Panthers allowed a pair of long touchdowns in the first half, including a 65-yard reception that was caught off a deflection.
“When plays like that start happening, you start wondering if the moons are lining against you,” Nesmith said. “But the kids just kept on plugging away, staying the course and playing the next play.”
The game turned in the third quarter when Panthers linebacker Jordan Hill intercepted Gators quarterback Jeff Iweh and ran the ball deep into Perry Hall territory to set up a Paint Branch touchdown.
“That was definitely the turning point in the game. If they score there, who knows how it would have turned out,” Nesmith said.
Paint Branch senior Johnny Littlejohn scored two touchdowns and was a triple-threat, running for 135 yards, catching four passes and throwing a 50-yard completion. Senior Javan Grafton caught six passes for 72 yards and two touchdowns and Javonn Curry caught seven passes for 123 yards.
Paint Branch fumbled twice in its final drive, recovering the football both times to set up Stewart's field goal.
“We were really holding our breath. Anything can happen in a Paint Branch football game,” Nesmith said.
Curry (leg) and Grafton (cramps) both missed time in the second half with what Nesmith described as “lower extremity injuries” but returned later in the game.
“It's going to take a better beginning than today,” Nesmith said. “We have to be sharper, can't turn the football over.”
Paint Branch 51, Perry Hall 48
Perry Hall (10-2) 19 14 0 15 — 48
Paint Branch (11-1) 6 14 21 10 — 51
PH — Jeff Iweh 17 run (kick failed)
PH — Will King 15 run (run failed)
PB — Johnny Littlejohn 49 run (kick failed)
PH — Mike Morris Jr. 70 run (Nick Starostenko kick)
PH — Mike Morris Jr. 4 run (Nick Starostenko kick)
PH — Javan Grafton 27 pass from Gaston Cooper (Sam Stewart kick)
PB — Gaston Cooper 4 run (Sam Stewart kick)
PH — Will King 65 pass from Jeff Iweh (Nick Starostenko kick)
PB — Darryl Hill Jr. 5 run (Sam Stewart kick)
PH — Javan Grafton 9 pass from Gaston Cooper (Sam Stewart kick)
PB — Johnny Littlejohn 11 run (Sam Stewart kick)
PH — Courtney Johnson 5 pass from Jeff Iweh (Nick Davis pass from Jeff Iweh)
PB — Gaston Cooper 5 run (Sam Stewart kick)
PH — Mike Morris Jr. 11 run (Nick Starostenko kick)
PB — Sam Stewart 3 kick
Perry Hall — Mike Morris Jr. 13-148; Jeff Iweh 16-42; Will King 3-24; Michael Fowler 1-5; Dominic Wilson 2-4; Ben Vargas 1-2.
Paint Branch — Johnny Littlejohn 16-135; Darryl Hill Jr. 5-22; Gaston Cooper 15-10.
Perry Hall — Jeff Iweh 17-29-246-2.
Paint Branch — Gaston Cooper 25-43-342-0. Johnny Littlejohn 1-1-50-0.
Perry Hall — Will King 5-109; Nick Davis 1-42; Courtney Johnson 3-30; Mike Morris Jr. 4-29; Jerry Iweh 2-21; Malik Morris 2-14.
Paint Branch — Javonn Curry 7-123; hJonny Littlejohn 4-86. Javan Grafton 6-72; Casey Schmucker 3-38; Kevin Koomson 2-18; Ryan Stango 2-11; Darryl Hill Jr. 2-4.The original version of this story incorrectly identified a player catching two touchdowns.