By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Jim McElhatton)
The algorithm that athletics officials use to determine who advances to the state football playoffs is pretty complex. While fans could make a strong case that T.C. Williams was worthy of a postseason spot, the finicky system meant there were no guarantees.
But a win against district rival West Potomac on Saturday would remove any doubt and debate. So the Titans (7-3) did just that with a 24-14 victory.
T.C. jumped out to a 14-0 lead, thanks to a big fumble recovery from Malik Carney and a pair of rushing touchdowns by quarterback Darius Holland and running back Lamont Whiteside. Still, West Potomac kept things tight, managing to tie the game in the second quarter on a rushing touchdown by quarterback Demornay Pierson-El.
So it was left to T.C.’s defense — as it has been all year — to foil their opponent’s repeated attempts at a comeback.
Midway through the third quarter, in what became the game’s watershed play, West Potomac running back Darien Pickett burst through a gap in the offensive line. With the Wolverines trailing 21-14, Pickett sprinted more than half the length of the field for what seemed like an almost certain touchdown.
But two Titans caught up with Pickett just a few steps shy of the end zone. Trying to fend off the dynamic duo of Phillip Tyler and Ervin Owusu, Pickett lost control of the ball.
As it slipped free, Tyler pounced and the Titans recovered the fumble.
“A big turning point was [Tyler] chasing that kid down and stripping the ball out,” said T.C. coach Dennis Randolph. “There were some big plays all around, and our kids stepped up.”
Down 24-14 in the fourth quarter, Pierson-El took a shot at a wide-open receiver in the end zone. T.C. defensive back Tim Rattanaphone, who had intercepted three passes earlier in the season against W.T. Woodson, sprinted to catch up.
But even he had his doubts.
“I thought I was beat,” Rattanaphone said later. “I couldn’t find the ball.”
The defensive back made a leaping, last-second try for a deflection. And he succeeded.
“I just used my speed and got a hand on it,” Rattanaphone said.
West Potomac’s drive fizzled after the deflection. And a few minutes later, fans celebrated T.C.’s first playoff appearance in 22 years.
The Titans’ defense had done it. They held the Wolverines scoreless in the second half to secure a postseason rematch with South County, who beat T.C. 44-37 a few weeks ago.
“The playoffs are great, but our goal since the beginning wasn’t just to make the playoffs,” said Jeremiah Clarke, a standout defensive lineman who will play at the University of North Carolina next year. “[Our] goal was to contend at states. So we’ve got one goal down, but we’ve got a bigger goal ahead of us.”
Clarke said the team never looked past West Potomac, though. The Wolverines are a major rival, and the Titans worked hard to stymie Pierson-El.
“We were ready for them,” Clarke said. “We knew the talent they had in the backfield with [Pierson-El], and we just had to make him adjust to us and to our defensive style. We’re a very attacking defense, and as a group, we held strong.”