When St. Frances coach Henry Russell played football at Gilman, he always wanted to play in the postseason, but the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference didn’t have playoffs.
“High school football across the country has playoffs everywhere and I always kind of felt left out,” he said. “I’d see coverage of the public school playoffs and of playoffs across the country, and we didn’t have that.”
His players won’t have to deal with that envy, as the MIAA A Conference will hold its first playoffs since 2012 at the end of this season.
Russell and some other coaches in the seven-team conference — Archbishop Spalding’s Kyle Schmitt, Mount Saint Joseph’s Rich Holzer and Calvert Hall’s Donald Davis — wanted to bring playoffs back to the A Conference, which tried them in 2011 and 2012 and then abandoned them. The sticking point has always been the Turkey Bowl.
Calvert Hall and Loyola Blakefield, who will meet for the 98th time this year, will play only in their rivalry game on Thanksgiving Day, which is after the regular season. The dilemma has been how to devise a fair playoff system with two teams playing one less game than the other five.
After much debate, most coaches were willing to accept concessions to make playoffs happen. For only the third time in conference history, the A Conference will have a championship game, on Nov. 19 at Johns Hopkins’ Homewood Field. Semifinals will be held on the weekend of Nov. 11 at a neutral site or will be hosted by the higher seeds.
Calvert Hall or Loyola, the team that finishes higher in the standings, will be given a win and the other will take a loss for purposes of seeding the playoffs. If Calvert Hall and Loyola are the No. 1 and No. 4 seeds or the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds, the semifinals will be reseeded so they don’t meet. Should they advance to the final, the Turkey Bowl would become the A Conference championship.
That’s a little too much for McDonogh coach Dom Damico and Gilman coach Tim Holley.
“You’re giving a team a win without playing,” Damico said, “and to me, I don’t understand how that if two teams refuse to play in the regular season and they refuse to play in the [semifinals] if they’re seeded versus each other and if they happen to be in the championship game, then the Turkey Bowl becomes the championship. That’s too many things going on in order to make it a league.
“That game is thus guiding the entire playoff system, which to me isn’t fair to the other teams. It might be fair to Loyola and Calvert Hall, and I know the importance of that game to their whole community, but it’s not fair to the rest of the league that the playoff system is that way.”
Damico would rather his players move on to winter sports, which he said is the main reason McDonogh officials were not in favor of the football playoffs. As a small school, he said, adding two weeks to the football season hurts winter sports.
Gilman and McDonogh also would prefer to end the season with their rivalry game, which will be their 102nd meeting this year. After the 2012 meeting, however, they came right back the next week and met in the conference semifinal.
“I thought with such a small conference we didn’t need it,” Holley said, “and I also thought the Turkey Bowl complicated matters so much that it was difficult to get equity across the board, but we were outvoted, so we’re doing what the league tells us.”
The extra win for Calvert Hall or Loyola could drop another team from fourth place to fifth, and out of the playoffs. Had these playoffs been in place in 2014, Calvert Hall’s extra win would’ve given the Cardinals and Mount Saint Joseph 3-3 records in a fourth-place tie, but the Cardinals would’ve made the playoffs because they beat the Gaels during the regular season.
“You could run into that every once in a while,” Holzer said, “but I think the overall benefits outweigh one or two hypothetical scenarios for the kids. … I could get hit by a car, but am I not going to go out and walk across the street? That’s the way I look at it. We’ll deal with that if it happens.”
To Schmitt, who like Holzer has coached in the public school postseason, playoffs give the entire season more meaning. An 0-2 start almost certainly would knock a team from contention in the A Conference if the champion is the regular-season winner. It’s much easier to bounce back when players know they can finish fourth and still qualify for the playoffs.
In addition to having time to develop a team, Schmitt, whose Cavaliers finished second to St. Frances last season, likes the chance to get a second shot at a team after a loss.
“You go into each game with the mindset that this might be game one of two and that’s exciting. That makes it fun,” Schmitt said. “The chess match is only escalated at that point.”
For Calvert Hall or Loyola, getting into the championship game presents the problem of playing Sunday and coming back Thursday to play the Turkey Bowl. Calvert Hall played in both previous championships just five or six days before the Turkey Bowl. Still, Davis and first-year Dons coach Anthony Zehyoue support the playoffs.
“I’m in favor of it for the league and for the kids,” Davis said. “If you ask our kids, they want a chance to go play in a championship. You get rewarded for playing well and if you’re a senior more often than not, you’re playing your last football game. I think kids jump at that opportunity.”
There’s a good chance most of today’s players feel the way Russell did.
“Last year, we felt shortchanged,” Spalding quarterback Jayden Umbarger said. “When we lost to St. Frances, we knew we weren’t going to be champions after that. Now, it can give a runner-up or an underdog the chance to prove themselves instead of the season just ending. … It gives us something to look forward to.”