MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

Fort Hill’s 16-14 win over Mountain Ridge Saturday night in Annapolis made the Sentinels the Maryland 1A state football champion for the second year in a row and for the seventh time since 2013.

That’s nine state football championships in all for the school, a remarkable feat in itself, particularly to those who have seen and followed Fort Hill’s state championship odyssey since the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association initiated its state football playoffs in 1974.

The MPSSAA had been proposing the football playoffs since the early 1970s and not surprisingly, most folks in Western Maryland wanted very little if anything to do with it, as it would eliminate the annual Thanksgiving Day games that had been played in Cumberland and in Frostburg from seemingly the beginning of time.

Against strong opposition, at least from football fans here, the football tournament began in 1974, one season later than the MPSSAA had planned, which, coincidentally, likely cost Fort Hill its first state title because in 1973 the Sentinels of Coach Charlie Lattimer, who had been in favor of the playoffs from the beginning, had produced arguably the best team in the state in any class – the Mark Manges powerhouse that finished the season 10-0, capped by a 50-12 dismantling of an outstanding one-loss Allegany team in the Turkey Day Game.

The playoffs came in 1974, and though Fort Hill found itself in a reload season, having lost a loaded senior class from the previous season, it was just always assumed the Sentinels would win the area’s first Maryland state title, because … well, they were Fort Hill.

Turns out that wasn’t the case, as the Sentinels were beaten by a very physical Northwood team in the Class A (now 3A) semifinals right here at Greenway. So clearly this wasn’t going to be as easy as simply showing up, though it certainly seemed to be for Class C (now 1A) Valley of Lonaconing, as head coach Tom Harman’s Black Knights sailed to the Class C title to win the first state football championship in Allegany County history.

Fort Hill would find redemption the following year with a heart-stopping double-overtime victory over Northwood in the semifinal and then an easy time of things against Frederick Douglass in the title game for a perfect 12-0 season.

All was right with the world, the state titles would surely begin to flow to South Cumberland; except that it wasn’t, and they didn’t. Fort Hill’s next state title would not come until 22 years later when Coach Mike Calhoun’s 1997 Sentinels stormed through a 13-0 season to win the Class 2A title.

In the meantime, Valley, under Coach Jack Gilmore, won its second Class C state title in 1977 and, to make matters even worse for Fort Hill, arch-rival Allegany ran off a string of six Class B and 2A titles under head coaches Jim Refosco and Gilmore before the Sentinels even reached No. 2.

There were many difficult and bitter playoff losses to digest for the Sentinels over the years, due in part to bad luck, outstanding opponents and Fort Hill’s usually being one of the smallest schools in its respective class – Class 3A and then Class 2A beginning in 1989.

Fort Hill, for whatever reason, couldn’t consistently get over the state-title hump, which was a great mystery to most football observers and reporters around the state, because everybody around the state knows about Fort Hill. Yet nobody could figure out why the Sentinels had a state-title problem, despite reaching the final on numerous occasions.

And, once more, to make matters worse, Allegany won its eighth state title in 2005 and mocked the Sentinels for years with “Homecoming Champs” even though Fort Hill’s Homecoming domination was coming at the expense of the Campers.

While the Sentinels’ overall playoff record was impressive, the only luck they seemed to have in the title games was bad luck, beginning with Baltimore powerhouse Dunbar, who beat Fort Hill for the title in 1994, 2006 and one of the most wretched losses in Fort Hill history in 2008. That came 21 years after the Sentinels beat the Poets for the 1997 title.

Coach Todd Appel’s teams, though, more than broke through, slamming the door on the 16-year drought in 2013 by winning four straight 1A state titles, then another one in 2018, having just missed against Dunbar in ’17. And now it is Coach Zack Alkire’s Fort Hill teams that have won the last two state titles.

The stars and the heroes read like a Who’s Who through this odyssey – Steve Trimble, Bruce Metz, Lyle Peck, Josh Page, Noah Read, Ty Johnson, Brayden Brown and many, many others. The latest name on this distinguished list is Quinn Cohen, who laced the game-winning 23-yard field goal on Saturday to break Mountain Ridge’s heart for the second year in a row and put Fort Hill, as they’ve been saying since 1936, over the top.

Now it is Fort Hill who is having the last laugh, as the Sentinels remain the undisputed “Homecoming Champs” but are now Western Maryland’s leader in state football championships with nine.

Of those nine, of Allegany’s eight, of Valley’s two, which state championship was the hardest one to come by? They’re all hard, they’re all hard to come by and every single one of them means the world to those who realize them. That’s why they’re called state championships and that’s why a great team and a great program such as Mountain Ridge will tell you the hardest one may well be the first one.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT