Elks begin region title defense against Cobras
ELKTON — A defensive masterpiece on the road is how the Elkton football team has opened the postseason each of the past two years.
Sparked by first-round shutouts over higher seeds, the Golden Elks have advanced to the region final in back-toback years, including last season, when the Cecil County program advanced to the 2A state championship game for the first time since 2000.
Third-seeded Elkton (8-2) will be aiming for a similar start to this year’s postseason when it travels to play No. 2 Harford Tech (10-0) tonight in the 2A East Region semifinals. It marks the thirdstraight year that the Elks will start the playoffs on the road as the region’s third seed.
“We’ll lean on [playoff experience] and we’ll remind the guys that we’ve been here before and we’ve played in big games, especially on the road. We’ve played a lot of big games on the road and we can’t let the lights get to us,” Elkton head coach Matt Feeney said. “Some of the older guys, some of the guys who were really vital on the run last year, they know what it takes. Kind of our offseason message was ‘We want to get back to where we were and we can’t let the moment be too big.’ Here’s test No. 1 for the moment being too big. I think they’re looking forward to this game.”
Elkton will enter having competed in six playoff games over the past two years, while the host Cobras are making their first-ever postseason appearance in the nearly 40-year history of the Harford County program.
Harford Tech secured the opening-round home game after the Elks, who needed a victory in their regularseason finale to capture the region’s second seed, fell to C.M. Wright, 14-13.
As a result, Elkton will be without a pair of key senior starters, including 2016 consensus All-State running back Raiquon Estep, who have been banned from playing games in Harford County all season due to their involvement in an altercation that occurred following a playoff basketball game between the two schools in February.
“If we would have taken care of business on Friday night this wouldn’t even be a story. We would be playing at home and none of this would be an issue. We didn’t get the job done and that left a really sour taste in our mouths as an entire program,” Feeney said. “At this point, we’re not getting hung up on it being Harford Tech. We’re looking at a 10-0 football team that deserves to be hosting this game and we have to go down there and play our brand of football and hopefully come out with a win.”
Elkton went unbeaten in its three regular-season games played in Harford County this year without Estep or 2016 All-County lineman Travias Smith. Their teammates are once again prepared to hit the road without them.
“Just like before, it’s always [unfortunate] not to be able to play with one of your brothers that you’ve been playing with for so long, but we have to go in there and win this game for [Estep] and for Tazz [Smith] and for ourselves,” Elks senior quarterback/receiver Ray Johnson said. “We’re confident in our guys that we’ve put in their positions. We feel pretty great about how everything’s looking, how every- thing’s coming together without them. We’ve already had some experience, it’s not like it’s a brand new thing.
“It doesn’t really change much because the guys we put into their positions can get the job done, but it is challenging because there are some skills that Ray brings to the table—explosiveness, agility—and some characteristics that Tazz brings to the table, like his strength and how big he is, but you just overcome those challenges by having heart and strength and playing our football.”
Elkton topped 3A North playoff team Edgewood on the road in Week 5 of the regular season before closing out the year with road wins over North Harford and Aberdeen in the closing weeks of the campaign. Tonight will be the toughest test yet as it faces the undefeated Susquehanna Division champions.
“When we saw that we can win [without our teammates] our confidence went up. Not that we don’t need them, but we’ve seen we can come together as a team when they’re not there,” senior safety Mike Matthews said. “To lose them is painful because I’ve been playing with them since I was 7. To lose them in a playoff game is hard. We’re going to fight so they can play next week.”
Without its leading scorer suiting up on offense, Elkton will turn to its defense to set the tone tonight against a Cobras offense that averaged 40 points per contest. Last November, the Elks shut out Queen Anne’s County, 12-0, in the region semifinals, with Estep rushing for a pair of second-half touchdowns.
The two scores kicked off a memorable four-game run for Estep, who finished last year’s postseason with 770 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. He ended his junior campaign with 2,594 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns, piling up the ninth-most rushing yards in a single season in state history.
“The idea on Friday is that we have to play a little bit of a different style than we played most of the year. It’s playoff time, the intensity has to turn up. Everything that we’ve been doing, it has to be amplified—and not just from a player’s standpoint but from a coach’s standpoint. We can’t just go in there and do the same old, same old. When you go up against a good team, they’re going to pick apart your tendencies and pick apart your weaknesses” Feeney said. “That’s kind of been our M.O. every year, is that we look back and reflect on what we’ve done defensively and we try to present the offense with a little bit of a curveball. That’s kind of the mindset and that’s what we’re looking to do this week.”
On offense, the Elks will turn to a trio of running backs to fill the void left by Estep. Matthews, sophomore tailback/linebacker Tashawn Watters and freshmen Gregg Triplett III will likely share ball-carrier duties after earning experience during the regular season.
Estep has no doubts his teammates will take advantage of the playing time.
“Gregg, a freshman, I think he can handle himself. Mike, he can play any position, so he’ll be able to handle himself back there, and Tashawn, he plays running back, so they’re good enough,” said Estep, who plans to follow along with the game on social media. “It’s not too [painful missing the game] because I trust that they’re going to go down there and win.”
Follow Jordan Schatz on Twitter: @Jordan_Whig
With star running back Raiquon Estep not playing, sophomore Tashawn Watters (3) will likely share backfield duties with several of his teammates tonight when third-seeded Elkton battles host No. 2 Harford Tech in the 2A East Region semifinals.