Sophomore quarterbacks aren’t supposed to be doing this. Kids like Mark Pierce, Northwest High School’s starter under center, aren’t supposed to go 3-0 over two of Montgomery County’s traditional powers, Quince Orchard and Seneca Valley, in their first varsity season. And they certainly aren’t supposed to be making it look so easy.
On Friday night, just 21 days after handing Quince Orchard its first and only loss of the regular season, 35-21, Pierce sent shockwaves through the county again, leading the Jaguars past the Cougars 28-20 in Gaithersburg.
With the win, Northwest was crowned 4A West Region champions — its first region title since 2006. The Jaguars will face Paint Branch, which assembled a 51-48 comeback win over Perry Hall in the 4A North, next week.
“I mean, yeah, I’m a sophomore,” said Pierce, who completed 13-of-23 passes for 133 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. “I’m young and I have a lot to learn, but I don’t look at it that way. It doesn’t matter how old you are. If you get the job done, it doesn’t matter. If you’re a senior or a sophomore you do the same thing. You might be a little taller or stronger but that doesn’t mean you can’t win big games.”
And it’s the big ones in which Pierce continually shines the brightest. In a matchup with Seneca Valley in the third game of the fall, he engineered a 15-play, 80 yard drive in the fourth quarter and capped it off with a game-winning, 21-yard touchdown pass to E.J. Lee to top the Screaming Eagles for the first time since 2006.
In the Jags’ first meeting with Quince Orchard earlier this month, Pierce threw for 331 yards and four touchdowns in dismantling the Cougars by a two-score margin.
Three weeks later, on Friday night, he authored drives of 72, 75 and 40 yards in the first 14 minutes to grant Northwest a quick 20-point cushion it wouldn’t relent, though QO would ensure no fans left early.
“We could have gotten run off the field early in the game,” Cougars coach Dave Mencarini said.
But Quince Orchard doesn’t get run off football fields. It took precisely one play and 10 seconds for Kevin Joppy to run 54 yards and put the Cougars on the scoreboard early in the second quarter. Joppy’s run, just one of two on the night for the senior back that eclipsed 10 yards, preceded a Kyle Gregory interception on the third play of Northwest’s ensuing drive. In a matter of four plays, the momentum had made a 180-degree flip.
“We lost it quick when they hit that one right up the middle,” Northwest coach Mike Neubeiser said. “It’s funny how momentum plays such a big role in a game. I talked to the kids beforehand about adversity, and I told them, ‘At some point, we’re going to be against the wall, and how we react to it is going to determine whether we win or lose.’”
The coach’s chat proved to be a timely — and somewhat prophetic — one. Joppy carried twice for 21 yards to drive the Cougars to the Northwest 13. Quarterback Mike Murtaugh’s first pass attempt went incomplete and his second was dropped in the end zone. Needing one more stop to negate the turnover, the Jaguars’ defense held on one more time, popping the ball out of Joppy’s hands in the end zone to rule the pass incomplete.
“I give props to our defense,” Pierce said. “They held them down. It was good to get up on them like that. It’s good to get that momentum going and a quick lead in the game.”
Pierce would be bailed out by his defense one more time. Early in the third quarter, Quince Orchard down 20-14, Elliott Davis stepped in front of the sophomore’s pass and took it down to the Northwest 7. Joppy ran for two yards then was stuffed for none, Murtaugh threw incomplete, and it was fourth-and-goal from the 5. Mencarini sent out the field goal unit for what looked like an easy three points, but Troy Porter’s kick barely left his foot before it was knocked down by a sea of Jaguars.
“That was the biggest play of the game right there,” Neubeiser said.
Davis nearly made a bigger one with 61 seconds remaining and the Cougars down 28-20 following a 3-yard touchdown from Murtaugh to Greg Williams. Quince Orchard lined up for an onside kick, and the ball bounded the required 10 yards before Davis, playing the far side gunner, pounced on it. Cougars fans erupted. Northwest fell silent. And then the refs signaled Jaguar ball. Heated discussions ensued, but so did a few Pierce kneel downs, two runs, a minute off the clock, and a Northwest victory.
“They played great,” Mencarini said. “They did a great job and I hope they win the state championship. I’ll be rooting for them, them or Paint Branch, represent MoCo. That’s what it’s about at this point. I’m disappointed we lost but I want to make sure Montgomery County represents itself with a state championship.”
Northwest 28, Quince Orchard 20
Northwest (10-2) 7 13 0 8 — 28
Quince Orchard (10-2) 0 14 0 6 — 20
N — Matt Watson 7 pass from Mark Pierce (Diego Melendez kick)
N — Josh Gills 14 pass from Mark Pierce (Trint Coulter pass incomplete)
N — Matt Watson 29 run (Diego Melendez kick)
QO — Kevin Joppy 54 run (Troy Porter kick)
QO — Shawn Barlow 11 run (Troy Porter kick)
N — Matt Watson 21 run (Trint Coulter pass from Mark Pierce)
QO — Greg Williams 3 pass from Mike Murtaugh (Troy Porter kick failed)
N — E.J. Lee 16-84; Matt Watson 4-76; Rasheed Gills 5-32; Luke Pierce 1-4; Jamar Wilson 1-3; Josh Gills 1-2; Luke Pierce 11- (-) 1.
QO — Kevin Joppy 17-121; Shawn Barlow 6-48; Malcolm Brown 2-29; Eisley Kim 2-5; Mike Murtaugh 3- (-) 10.
N — Mark Pierce 13-23-133-2.
QO — Mike Martaugh 10-24-79-1.
N — Josh Gills 4-46; E.J. Lee 3-31; Jamar Wilson 2-32; Matt Watson 3-12; Brandon Williams 1-9.
QO — Elliott Davis 1-38; Malcolm Brown 5-18; Greg Williams 2-9; Preston Bampoe-addo 1-7.