Before every playoff game this year, members of the River Hill boys' basketball team stop to look at a piece of paper that's posted in their locker room.
That piece of paper is a stat sheet from River Hill's only playoff game last season, a 43-35 defeat at home to Wilde Lake in the first round. It serves as a reminder that the Hawks don't want to suffer that same fate this season.
"Without a doubt that's what has motivated us this season," senior guard Jaden Martin said. "When we look at the sheet from the Wilde Lake game, it's a reminder of what that felt like. One of my teammates has the background picture on his phone as a news report from that game. He shows it to us, and that helps us get ready to play. There was no way we were going to have that happen again."
River Hill has already advanced farther than it did in 2017. The Hawks (21-4) will take on North Caroline in the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association 2A state semifinal at the Xfinity Center in College Park, Md., March 9. If the Hawks win, they'll advance to play either Clifton or Oakdale for the MPSSAA 2A state championship.
In order to advance to the championship River Hill will need to keep North Caroline in check. River Hill is 22-1 this season when it holds its opponents to 58 points or less.
"They'll probably want to run and gun, and we'll probably want to slow it down," Martin said. "It'll be important to not get caught up in the moment and keep our emotions in check."
River Hill made it to the state semifinal after earning the No. 1 overall seed in the 2A South. The Hawks faced Marriotts Ridge in its first playoff game and avoided a repeat of last year, when they turned in one of their best defensive efforts of the year, winning 51-39.
River Hill then got past Oakland Mills, which led to a home matchup with Thomas Stone in the regional final. The Hawks initially struggled to stop Thomas Stone, especially senior forward Kamau Mitchell, who scored 13 points in the first two quarters, and trailed 32-26 at halftime.
River Hill decided to switch out of the matchup zone it had been using on defense and go man-to-man to start the second half. The results were immediate.
"We got stops coming out of the gate and opened the second half on a 13-0 run, which switched the whole rhythm of the game in our direction," senior guard Jacob Krause said. "With Mitchell, we did our best to lock him down, and everyone knew to give help to whoever was guarding him."
In front of a crowd that was so loud that Martin and Krause said they had trouble hearing on the court, River Hill pulled away for a 61-51 victory.
River Hill will look to carry that momentum into the semifinals.
The Hawks haven't won a state title since 2007, and a key contributor on that team was current Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Michael Campanaro, who stopped by the team's practice March 5 to tell the players about his playoff experience and to wish the group luck.
Matt Graves, who is in his 14th season as head coach, said there are some differences between the 2007 team and his current group in terms of personnel, but their approaches are similar.
"We run the same offense and have the same defensive philosophy, but the 2007 group was younger," Graves said. "This year, we're really senior heavy and experienced -- with nine returners and five seniors starting. Both groups did have the same goal though -- to be the team nobody else expected to be there representing both our school and county."
Before River Hill steps out onto the Xfinity Center court March 9, its members will once again glance at that stat sheet. Then the Hawks will take the court and look to make new memories.
"It would mean the world to us to win the whole thing," Krause said. "It's the sort of thing you could tell your kids or grandkids about one day. Everyone has worked hard for this, not just the players, but the coaches, managers and everyone in the program. To get the victory in the final game of the season would be amazing."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Matt Graves