When the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference coaches decided to drop their playoffs this fall after a two-year experiment, many players were extremely disappointed.
The Gilman and McDonogh players needn't have been. Their Saturday afternoon season finale at McDonogh has turned into a championship game, a winner-take-all for the A Conference title and the No. 1 ranking — as if the 98th rivalry game between the two private schools needed any more hype.
"It's just as big a game even it wasn't the championship," McDonogh senior running back Alex Hurdle said. "We haven't beaten those guys in [five] years, and it's my last football game ever and I'm coming out on fire."
Hurdle echoes the sentiments of his Eagles teammates. The Greyhounds have just as much motivation to keep their winning streak going. There's no bigger game for either team and its fans and this year's edition has all the makings of a spectacular finishing touch to the season.
Two-time defending champion Gilman has won five straight meetings — four in the rivalry game and one in the playoffs last year — but the teams are more evenly matched this time. Both have defeated their five A Conference opponents by an average of 26 points. Both have monstrous offensive lines and strong running games.
"I hope it doesn't come down to who has the ball last," McDonogh coach Dom Damico said, "but I do see that kind of game. I'm hoping we can tackle their run and they can't stop ours. That's kind of the plan and if that doesn't go well, we'll see who can throw the ball."
The Greyhounds' offense spins around highly-recruited junior quarterback Kai Locksley, who has run for 795 yards and 14 touchdowns and thrown for 803 yards and five touchdowns. They also have a handful of running backs capable of making big plays — Bijan Rhett, Dorian Maddox and Antonio Dupree.
The Eagles have been banged up much of the season at running back but Hurdle, who ran 23 times for 138 yards and two touchdowns in last week's 23-12 win over No. 6 Archbishop Spalding, has been tough to stop despite a painful nagging foot injury. Syl Brown, coming back from an early-season hamstring injury, can still be slippery.
Both teams prefer to run, but Locksley and Eagles quarterback Jansen Durham, a sophomore who started as a freshman last season, have several options if they need to pass. The Greyhounds, however, may have a greater variety of options.
"They have a lot of weapons," Damico said. "Their two tailbacks are very tough and they have four or five wide receivers they can throw screens and deep balls to. They can run inside, they can run outside, they can throw the ball. They have so many different kids they can get the ball to."
While the Greyhounds dominated the A Conference last season, the Eagles finished 3-8 with a young team that quickly grew into a contender with strong leadership from 12 seniors.
"This is the best McDonogh team I've seen in 10 years," Gilman coach Biff Poggi said. "You prefer when they have to do something tricky. The problem with McDonogh is they just line up toe-to-toe and want to pound you. We have to have a really solid game on defense and make sure we don't give up any long runs."
Poggi's main concern is mistakes you don't expect at this time of year. Last week the Greyhounds, who also have a lot of young players, had minus-67 yards in errant snaps, he said, along with two turnovers. That could be trouble against McDonogh, which turned two Spalding turnovers into a 10-0 lead in the first half of last Friday's game.
The Eagles have a chance to finish off their first undefeated season since going 8-0 and winning the B Conference in 2000. That was the last time they won a football title outright although they tied twice for the championship, with Gilman and Loyola in 2006 and with Gilman in 2001.
In 2009, McDonogh and Gilman had the same record, but the Greyhounds won the title on the head-to-head tie breaker used only in 2009 and 2010.
Last season, Gilman defeated McDonogh twice — 48-12 during the regular-season rivalry game then 20-8 two weeks later in the A Conference semifinals.
McDonogh's last win in the rivalry was 22-14 in 2008.
98th Gilman-McDonogh Football Game
No. 1 Gilman (7-2, 5-0) at No. 2 McDonogh (10-0, 5-0)
When: Saturday, 1 p.m.
Coaches: Biff Poggi, Gilman; Dom Damico, McDonogh
Last meeting: Gilman won, 20-8, last year
Series: Gilman leads 59-33-5
MCDONOGH: OT Jared Cohen, Sr.; OT Ryan Ford, Sr.; OG Ellis McKennie, Jr.; RB Alex Hurdle, Sr.; WR Josh Woods, Sr.; WR Mike Cornwell, Jr.; NG Mike Smith, Jr.; LB Wyatt Cook, Jr.; LB Connor Young, Jr.; FS Eric Burrell, Soph.; CB Kareem Montgomery, Jr.
GILMAN: QB Kai Locksley, Jr.; DE-OLB Melvin Keihn, Sr.; OT Chibuzo Ukandu, Sr.; CB/WR Troy Vincent Jr., Sr.; DT Ellison Jordan, Soph.; Jelani Roberts, Jr.; RB Bijan Rhett Sr.; OG Sheldon Johnson, Sr.; RB Antonio Dupree, Soph.; RB-LB Dorian Maddox, Soph.; LB Chase Campbell, Sr.