Arundel High football coach Jack Walsh said “the Chuck Markiewicz vibe is still thick and heavy,” in the program’s DNA.
Markiewicz, a legendary figure in Anne Arundel County football, led Arundel and North County to state championship games with high-powered offenses.
Without a healthy quarterback, the Wildcats were at a disadvantage for Friday evening’s Class 4A/3A state semifinal against Dundalk. Arundel would need a major assist from its defense, a unit which has pale in comparison for many seasons.
But it’s a vastly different “vibe” around the Wildcats, who are on the cusp of a championship. No. 11 Arundel held off the 10th-ranked Owls, 6-0, in chilly Baltimore County.
Senior Ahmad Taylor scored the game’s only touchdown on a 20-yard run in the third quarter for Arundel (10-2 overall). Pat Connelly’s interception in the end zone with 14 seconds left in regulation, capped a Picasso-esque defensive effort for the Wildcats, who will return to Anne Arundel County, specifically Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
Arundel will play Southern Maryland’s North Point, a 17-0 winner over Frederick County’s Urbana Friday evening, for the 4A/3A crown next Friday evening at 7:30. It will be the Wildcats’ first title-game appearance since 2007 when they reached the Class 4A final at M&T Bank Stadium.
“My opinion is if you make the final four, you’re a pretty darn good football team,” said Walsh, a longtime Wildcat assistant who succeeded Markiewicz as coach after his retirement in 2018. “It’s any given night at that point. We made it to the final four last year and lost big here.”
Dundalk 40, Arundel 6, to be exact.
“That really stung for a little bit,” said Taylor of last year’s state semifinal defeat. “We all hit the field that weekend and we’ve been training ever since. We knew we wanted to come back here.”
Taylor scooted up the middle and into the end zone for the game’s lone points with two minutes, 12 seconds remaining in the third quarter. He went for 32 yards on the previous play.
“When we saw they brought the safety down with the ‘tripps,’ we decided to run an outside zone play away from it. Once I was able to clear the first level it was a footrace,” said Taylor of his 32-yard breakout. “Once I got tackled we were thinking they (Arundel) might think we would go outside again, so we faked the jet and ran the qb counter and the hole was wide open.”
With junior starting quarterback Gavin Kamachi done for the season after breaking his collarbone in the second quarter of last week’s state quarterfinal win over Montgomery County’s Seneca Valley and backup Andre Dobson ineffective with a sprained ankle, Arundel kept the ball on the ground for all but one play with Taylor (71 yards) as the “wildcat” along with TJ Mordecai in the backfield in the second half.
“We’re going to lean heavy on our seniors,” said Walsh, who had two freshmen and sophomores starting Friday on the offensive line because of injuries. “If we’re going down, we’re going down on those kids.”
The Wildcats could play ball control Friday because their defense overwhelmed Dundalk’s offense. The Owls finished with 37 yards rushing, minus-eight in the second half. Owls senior running back Jordan Fiorenza finished with 27 yards on 16 carries.
The Baltimore County Division I champs made a final push late in regulation. Four straight completions from junior quarterback Ja Bonner got the Owls from their 18 to Arundel’s 44 with 2:30 remaining. After back-to-back sacks knocked Dundalk back to its 41, Bonner’s downfield sling was caught by senior Jacob Knighton, who was dragged down at Arundel’s five with 1:14 left.
Wildcats junior linebacker Raymond Chapman dropped Fiorenza for a four-yard loss, and Bonner spiked the ball with 24 seconds left. Bonner went to the end zone, but Connelly captured the ball for the interception.
“I just stayed in my zone and saw the quarterback release the ball from his arm and I just made a play on the ball,” said Connelly, who moved from wide receiver to defensive back this season. “It was surreal.”
Senior linebacker Camden Neiswander said the Wildcats defense wanted to atone for last year’s playoff effort.
“We wanted to come back here and see if our unit was any better. We proved it tonight,” said Neiswander, whose unit had allowed 105 yards before Dundalk’s 54-yard pass play late in regulation. “We’re not the biggest group, but we love hitting.”
Looking to return to the 4A/3A state final, Dundalk (10-2) never found its footing offensively Friday, losing for the first time since a week four at No. 12 Westminster.
It was the Owls’ first shutout loss since the 2017 3A North Region playoffs.
“It was a championship game. I told the kids during the week to get where we want we got two championship games back-to-back and this was the first one,” said Dundalk first-year coach Tom Abel. “They (Arundel) went nine in the box…they hit the run through lane and we expected that. We missed on the inside backers (linebackers). They made more plays on defense.”
Arundel closed the regular season with top-ranked St. Frances last month. The Panthers, then- ranked No. 2 in the nation, rolled to a 50-0 victory in Gambrills.
The Wildcats knew they wouldn’t face a team close to St. Frances’ pedigree in the postseason.
“That was a calculated risk. The kids voted and they wanted to play them,” said Walsh. “They wanted to see what the best was…Anything we see in the playoffs, not that we can beat anybody, but anything we see isn’t going to be at that level.”
The Wildcats don’t think the moment will be too big next Friday when they make the 15-minute bus ride from Gambrills to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, looking to win its first state championship since 1975, and Anne Arundel County’s first since 2011 (Old Mill).
“We’ve been fighting all year. Every game we’ve played has prepared us for this moment,” said Taylor. “We played the No. 2 team in Delaware, the No. 2 team in the country, we’re used to playing under pressure situations.”
“We always say ‘don’t be surprised’ or ‘we planned for this,’” said Walsh, “but I’d be lying if this is not a little surreal.”
Class 4A/3A state semifinal
No. 11 Arundel 6, No. 10 Dundalk 0
Arundel 0 0 6 0 - 6
Dundalk 0 0 0 0 - 0
Arundel - Ahmad Taylor 18 run (kick failed)