As friends and rivals, Gilman and St. Frances prepare for MIAA A Conference title game

Even before this football season began, St. Frances was a sure bet to reach the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship. Gilman, however, wasn’t exactly on the radar.

The No. 1 Panthers were coming off their first A Conference championship last season and had just reloaded with some of the top talent in the Middle Atlantic. The Greyhounds remained in transition after most of their coaching staff had departed for St. Frances after the 2015 season. Many of their top young players also left, so they were coming off a 2-9 season with just one conference win.

As expected, the Panthers bulldozed their conference opponents — by an average of 42.5 points. Gilman started 0-4 but then upset Calvert Hall in early October and surprised McDonogh, 24-21, in the final regular-season game to force a five-way tie for second place behind the undefeated Panthers. Thanks to the points the Greyhounds scored in a 76-58 loss to Archbishop Spalding, they earned the second seed on the final tiebreaker, which was most points scored in conference losses. Last week, they defeated Calvert Hall again, 42-24, in the semifinal.

That earned the No. 8 Greyhounds (5-6) a conference championship date with St. Frances (11-0) Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at Johns Hopkins Homewood Field. The Panthers rolled past No. 6 McDonogh, 49-7, in their semifinal game.

This is the first championship game in the A Conference in five years. Gilman, under Biff Poggi — now co-head coach at St. Frances with his long-time Gilman assistant Henry Russell — won both previous championship games, in 2011 and 2012. For the past four years, the regular-season winner was conference champion, but the coaches voted to bring back the playoffs this fall.

Gilman coach Tim Holley said the coaching staffs at the two schools remain friends and Russell, a Gilman graduate like Poggi and Holley, said he still roots for the Greyhounds — to a point.

“As I was telling some of their parents and coaches after the Calvert Hall game last week, we were pulling for them to win, but we didn’t want to play them Sunday,” Russell said. “It’s mixed emotions for all of us on the staff. So much of our heart lies at Gilman, but on the flip side, we’re here now and our kids have been truly amazing.”

To be sure, the Panthers are the overwhelming favorites. Ranked No. 13 in USA Today’s Super 25, they rolled over Gilman, 50-0, a month ago.

With the depth of top talent, it’s difficult for opponents to match up with the Panthers. Mount Saint Joseph came within 37-22, but no other team has come closer than within three touchdowns.

“Our players, we’re the best,” Panthers quarterback Jalon Jones said, “so practices are truthfully tougher than games, going up against the No. 1 defense in the nation. That’s the only people that can stop us. The only people that can stop the offense is our defense. The only people that can stop our defense is our offense.”

Jones, a junior dual threat committed to Mississippi State, and junior running back Joachim Bangda provide a powerful one-two punch behind a monstrous line that includes Under Armour All-American Jaelyn Duncan (Maryland). Bangda ran for two touchdowns last week and Jones ran for two and threw for one. On defense, the Panthers also have an Under Armour All-American in defensive end Eyabi Anoma and Rivals.com’s national No. 1 junior linebacker Shane Lee.

For Gilman, senior quarterback Purnell Hill struggled early but has come on strong late in the season, throwing for 1,237 yards and five touchdowns. Senior running back Brandon Madison carries much of the rushing load with 1,254 yards and 13 touchdowns. On the other side of the ball, defensive end Thomas Booker (Stanford) leads the way along with senior cornerback Brandon Willis (Navy), who returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown last week against Calvert Hall. Senior Piper Bond is the team’s top receiver and a key defensive player at safety with two interceptions last week.

While Holley and his players have no illusions about what they’re up against Sunday, they’re ready for the battle.

“With the place we were a year ago, with the transition,” Booker said, “I think it means a lot not only to the football team but to the entire Gilman school community for us to get back here [to the title game]. It pays homage to the hard work that coach Holley’s done, that every single coach on the coaching staff here has done and it pays homage to every single person who plays football at Gilman. ... I’m just proud to be with my guys in the championship.”

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kdunnsun

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