To hoist a second trophy in three years won’t diminish the tragedies of the past 27 months. It won’t heal the wounds suffered within the Mervo community. Not even close. But there is some solace in the community banding around its football program.
The past 27 months have been a harrowing journey for the Mustangs. Three weeks into the 2021 season, Elijah Gorham suffered a serious injury and died weeks later from related brain trauma. Mervo banded around his memory en route to its first state title in school history. Last season, another Mustangs life was taken far too soon when Jeremiah Brogden was shot and killed shortly after school dismissal on the day of the team’s season opener.
Weeks later, the Mustangs suffered several key injuries, including a season-ender to quarterback Ray Moore III’s wrist, that capped any shot at defending their state title.
To capture Saturday’s 4A/3A state championship at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, to deliriously jump into each other’s arms as the clock wound down after beating North Point, 14-7, Mervo needed the kind of resilience it takes to endure such hardship.
Coach Patrick Nixon said his team probably thought it was corny, but their season mantra was simply, “Together.”
“I think they eventually bought into it and understood why I came up with that word,” Nixon said. “I think what made this team special was that they stayed together. … Last year we kind of broke apart with some of the tragedies that happened. I felt like this was the team that was going to bring our team and our community back together.”
North Point’s defense has been its calling card all season, even back to its 2022 state title. “They’ve been bullying a lot of people,” Nixon said. Its offense was lucrative (outscoring opponents 513-43) but its defense shut out nine teams. The Eagles didn’t surrender a point until a Week 5 win at Calvert. Mervo’s 14 points were the second most they’ve surrendered all year — and the Eagles’ seven points were the fewest they scored this season.
“We knew this game wasn’t going to be all sunshine and rainbows,” North Point senior running back Isaiah Coleman said. It certainly wasn’t, played under a thick layer of mist that hung dauntingly over the open stadium.
Mervo quarterback Raymond Moore leaps over North Point outside linebacker Camren Lawrence as he runs for a first down in the first half of the Class 4A/3A state championship game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)
Damien Brown broke through for the game’s first score on a 4-yard run to open the second quarter, an early tip of momentum toward the Eagles between two oft-stalling offenses. North Point grasped its early spurt of offense, tightened its seatbelt, grabbed hold of the safety railings and hung on for the ride the next 35 minutes. It proved just shy of enough.
The game’s tipping point came after another stalled Mervo drive. The Mustangs marched down to the Eagles’ 28-yard line in the second quarter but would be pushed back and forced to punt.
On North Point’s ensuing play from scrimmage, senior defensive end Jekai Smart ripped the ball from quarterback Kyler Ferreira to set the Mustangs up inside the 5. Smart dedicated that play and the state championship to Brogden, his late best friend.
“From the beginning of the game, I just wanted to play with a lot of passion for him,” Smart said. “I was so locked on. That’s the only word: dedication.”
It took four plays from the turnover, but running back Bobby Johnson eventually broke the plane, cutting the deficit to 7-6 after a blocked extra point attempt.
North Point and Mervo met in a preseason scrimmage this past August, playing to a scoreless tie. Eagles coach Bill Condo, remembering that meeting, said, “We knew this was going to be a dogfight.”
The Mervo football team celebrates winning the Class 4A/3A state championship against North Point at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. The No. 7 jersey pays tribute to Elijah Gorham, a Mervo wide receiver who died after a game injury in 2021. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)
It seemed like the Halley’s Comet of an offensive opportunity to tie the score had passed the Mustangs by. But Moore has a knack for keeping plays alive.
Several players sharing the postgame microphone laughed trying to describe how fun Moore can be to watch turn a near-sack into significant pickups –– most prominently on what would be the game-deciding drive. He pirouetted out of immense pressure in the backfield to complete a 39-yard bomb on third-and-long, then scrambled before throwing the ensuing touchdown pass to Justin Davaughn with 2:17 remaining.
A key defensive stop on fourth-and-1 ravaged North Point’s final opportunity for a game-saving drive, thus sealing Mervo’s second championship in three seasons. This was one required a bit of late-game drama while helping honor a slew of hardship since the last time the Mustangs were able to hoist a championship trophy.
“All the adversity and all the [stuff] we went through as a team,” Johnson said, “rather than continuing to let us spiral down or put us in a corner, we used it as motivation to build back up and put it toward something big. That’s what got us our win today.”