The only word an emotional Chris McPherson could come up with was "incredible."
The Quince Orchard senior place kicker, who earlier in the half had missed a critical extra point that almost cost the Cougars their perfect season, had just kicked a 24-yard field goal with seven seconds left in the game that helped propel the top-ranked Cougars to a 23-21 victory over the visiting Churchill Bulldogs in the Maryland 4A West Region final Friday night at the Cougar Dome.
"This was the most nervous I had ever been in my life," McPherson said of the moments leading up to his game-winning kick. "After it went through, it just felt incredible."
With the win Quince Orchard (12-0) moves on to the state semi-finals for the second time in the last five years and awaits the winner of Saturday's Suitland-C.H.Flowers game. Quince Orchard will host the game.
Quince Orchard coach Dave Mencarini, whose teams have made a habit of dramatic come-from-behind wins in the playoffs, including in 2007 when the Cougars overcame a 16-point fourth quarter deficit in the state championship game, said after Friday's game that this might have been the biggest win for the program since he has been there.
"I can't even put into words what just happened here," Mencarini said. "You practice a lot of situations throughout the week, but you can't simulate a field goal with seven seconds left in the regional finals. My kids showed a lot of character at the end of the game. But that's what we do. We've won games like this before in the years that I've been here. But it has nothing to do with me. We have 60 young men who believe in each other until there is no time left on the clock."
Quince Orchard may be no stranger to comeback games under Mencarini, but it was still somewhat unfamiliar territory for this year's group of Cougars, who entered Friday night's game having won their previous three games by a combined score of 153-7, including a 52-7 win over B-CC last week in the first round of the playoffs. But Quince Orchard, like it has all season, relied on running back Mark Green to carry the load when it mattered most.
Trailing 21-20 with 2:52 left in the game and their season hanging in the balance, the Cougars forced a punt and took over at their own 34-yard line. On the game's final drive, Green had carries of 12, 13, 17, and eight yards to put the Cougars in position for McPherson to kick the game-winner. Green ended with 168 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
"I knew I had to make plays for my team," said Green, who now has 1562 yards and 23 touchdowns on the season. "Any one of these guys around me would have done the same thing for me if they were in my situation."
Quince Orchard took an early lead thanks to a Green run from 12 yards out with 2:45 left in the first quarter. Churchill (10-2) got on the board in the second quarter thanks to a Lansana Keita touchdown pass to Quan Gill with 9:12 left in the half.
QO responded on its next possession, going 80 yards in less than four minutes on a drive that was capped by Green's 2-yard touchdown run with 5:38 left. But the Bulldogs got another score before the break to tie it when Keita took it in on a quarterback keeper from 4 yards out to make it 14-14 heading into halftime.
Keita finished with 185 yards passing and had multiple pass plays of more than 20 yards in the second half to give the Bulldogs a real shot to win the game.
And when Quince Orchard took a 20-14 lead in the third quarter on a Billy Plante touchdown run, Keita answered with a 1-yard run of his own with 9:26 left but the Bulldogs were unable to hold off the Cougars late and QO's late field goal dashed the Bulldogs' hopes of an upset.
"A lot of people thought we were going to come in here and lay down," Churchill coach Joe Allen said after the game. "But we competed until the very end and we let it slip away. But I think a lot of people know who Churchill is after tonight."
Plante finished 11-for-18 and 170 yards. Churchill's Curtis Kamara led the Bulldogs' ground game with 102 yards off 18 carries.
Quince Orchard overcame multiple mistakes in the win, including three turnovers and a series of costly penalties in the second half. And while Mencarini wasn't necessarily thinking about that immediately following the game, he said that protecting the ball and eliminating the mental errors will be a key focal point heading into the next round.
The two-point win was the Cougars' closest playoff win since 1991's state quarterfinal game against Oxon Hill of P.G. County, which Quince Orchard won 7-6 en route to the school's first state title. JV head coach Paul Foringer, who is the only current coach that was a member of the team's staff 20 years ago, said the feeling afterward was very similar and compared this year's players' resilience to that of the 1991 group.
And regardless of who wins Saturday's game between C.H. Flowers and Suitland, it will be another P.G. County team standing in the Cougars' ways of a state title berth.