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Down and Dirty in the Trenches

West Potomac’s Cunningham Helps Northern Region to Victory While Starting at Left Tackle

Matt Cunningham stood near midfield after his final high school football game and discussed with a reporter, among other topics, the offensive lineman’s helmet.

The familiar silver "winged" logo on top of West Potomac royal blue remained, but possessed an array of battle scars gained through butting heads with the opposition. Scratches zigged and zagged across the front of the tattered head gear, which showed traces of foreign green, yellow and purple paint. Evidence of life in the trenches was not a pretty sight.

After a disappointing senior season where the Wolverines finished 2-8, Cunningham earned one more chance to represent West Potomac in the 2010 Region Rumble All-Star Football Game on June 19 at South County Secondary School. By all-star game standards, the contest between the best players from the Northern and Northwest Regions looked like Cunningham’s helmet: ugly. Hard-hitting defenses and only one week of preparation time caught up to the offenses, which ended regulation having each produced just 14 points. But in the end, Cunningham’s Northern Region team did enough to pull out a 20-17 overtime victory.

The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Cunningham started at his usual left tackle position for an offensive line that included massive Lake Braddock blockers Khamrone Kolb and Jack Phillips. Kolb, a Penn State-bound tackle, is listed at 6-6, 325, and Phillips, who played left guard, is 6-7, 330. Cunningham, who received a full scholarship to James Madison, was trusted to protect the blindside of starting quarterback Connor Reilly (Woodson).

"IT WAS DEFINITELY an honor to be selected to play the money position on the O-line," Cunningham said. "I just went out there and played my hardest."

The game was a defensive struggle for the most part as the teams combined for seven turnovers. Each team finished with less than 40 yards on the ground. Athletes on both sides of the ball were playing hard and emotions were running high.

"There was a lot of chatter between the two sides," Cunningham said. "We were definitely talking to each other. It was getting pretty intense."

The game ended one play into the North’s possession in the first overtime. After the Northwest kicked a field goal in the overtime’s opening possession to take a 17-14 lead, Reilly on first-and-goal connected with a diving Brandon Johnson (Lake Braddock) in the back right corner of the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. Reilly and Johnson were Patriot District opponents during the season, with Woodson and Lake Braddock splitting their two meetings. But on this night, the two formed a pass-and-catch combo that produced a pair of touchdowns — the second leading to a celebratory Northern Region dogpile.

"We were big rivals during the season," Johnson said, "but going into the overtime, first down, I told him, ‘I’m going to get them on this corner [route] because that was my money all season long.’ … He threw a great pass and I just came down with it."

REILLY EARNED team offensive MVP honors, completing 21 of 43 passes for 231 yards and three touchdowns. The Temple University-bound signal caller said he knew immediately his throw to the corner was a game-winner.

"As soon as the safety turned his back," Reilly said, "it was wide open."

Players from the Northern Region piled on one another near the spot of Johnson’s catch, celebrating victory after an emotional game.

"It was crazy," Cunningham said. "I just sprinted over to the corner where [Johnson] was laying on the ground. It was just a big dogpile. It was a great feeling."

Johnson, a first-team all-state selection at wide receiver, wasn’t pleased with sharing playing time and decided to voice his opinion to the Northern Region coaching staff — his coaches from Lake Braddock.

"Me and [Hayfield’s] Antoine [McCallum] had been splitting time the whole game and I was getting a little bitter about it," Johnson said. "I told them, ‘Look, put me in in overtime, let me run the corner [route] and I’m going to score.’ [Offensive coordinator Chris Weiler] trusted me and I did it."

The Northern Region took a 7-0 lead when Reilly connected with Edison wide receiver Christian Washington for a 21-yard touchdown with 3:24 to play in the first half. The Northwest Region responded on its ensuing possession with an eight-play, 67-yard drive that used only 2 minutes and 20 seconds. Quarterback Bo Revell (Battlefield) ended the march with a 3-yard touchdown keeper, but the Northwest continued to trail as Woodson linebacker James Johnson blocked the extra point.

The Northern Region extended its lead to 14-6 when Reilly found Johnson in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown with 11:53 to play in the fourth quarter.

The Northwest Region drove deep into North territory minutes later, but was turned away when North cornerback Kentdrick Barnes (T.C. Williams) tackled receiver Christian Ocasto (Potomac) at the 5 on fourth-and-goal.

"I expected it to be challenging like it was," Barnes said of playing with and against some of the top talent in the state. "I knew that with all the great athletes we had that I had to go out and play my hardest in order to stay on the field. They gave everybody a shot and depending on how you played they decided whether you were going to be on the field or not.

"I played my heart out and tried to do the best I could. It was amazing. The speed and all the athletes, it really challenged me. I figure if I can play with them I can go on to the next level and play."

A 21-yard punt on the North’s ensuing possession set up the Northwest at the North 32-yard line. After Revell was sacked by the North’s Andrew Embree (Madison) on first down, Revell launched a 39-yard touchdown pass to Jared Johnson (Forest Park) with 6:54 remaining in the fourth. Thomas Keith (Osbourn) lined up at quarterback and scored on a keeper during the ensuing two-point conversion attempt to tie the game at 14.

Yorktown safety C.J. Bartholomew intercepted two passes and earned team defensive MVP honors. He also handled kicking duties, connecting on a pair of extra points. The National District Defensive Player of the Year shared Barnes’ enthusiasm about showing he belonged.

"When I got out on the field I was like, ‘I’m with the best players in the region, I’ve got to prove myself right here,’" Bartholomew said. "Honestly, I just came out with a sense of emotion where I’ve just got to be the best player I can be and prove myself in front of all the best players."

As for Cunningham, his battered helmet was a sign of a player who fought hard to win. Now he’ll try to mess up the shiny new helmet he will get at JMU.

"It’s a good preview for college," Cunningham said of playing in the Region Rumble. "It’s a higher competition level. It was a good experience."