When football kicks off for Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference teams this weekend, the highest profile games will be on the road.
McDonogh, last season's No. 1 team after going 11-0, tries for a second-straight win at Benedictine College Prep in Richmond, Va., Saturday while St. Frances attempts to avenge last season's loss to Friendship Collegiate at Spingarn High School in Washington, D.C.
Gilman, last year's A Conference runner-up to McDonogh, starts the season on national television and will play St. Edward, a nationally-ranked program from Ohio, on Sunday as part of the ESPN High School Showcase. The game will be televised on ESPNU at 4 p.m.
St. Edward is ranked No. 10 in USA Today's Super 25 and No. 3 in the MaxPreps Freeman Rankings. While the Greyhounds aren't ranked in either poll, coach Biff Poggi likes the early-season challenge.
With strong offensive and defensive lines and a host of talented skill players, led by senior quarterback Kai Locksley, Poggi said the Greyhounds "have all the pieces," but have to get better, especially on special teams.
St. Edward, an Ohio state finalist last season, returns 12 players from that team, including quarterback Brett Kean, who threw for 2,900 yards last season.
"We need to make first downs and keep the ball away from them," Poggi said. "We need to try and slow them down. When they're on offense, they play 70 snaps, which is a huge amount in high school football. We've got to slow them down and contain their big plays."
Opening against a nationally ranked opponent is nothing new for the Greyhounds. Last season they rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to beat Good Counsel, which was ranked No. 19 in USA Today's Super 25 preseason poll.
Two years ago, they opened on the road against Archbishop Moeller in Cincinnati, Ohio — USA Today's No. 14 team — and lost 35-14. Gilman was ranked No. 16 that year.
The Greyhounds, 7-3 last season and No. 2 in The Baltimore Sun's poll, follows St. Edward with home games against Paramus Catholic from New Jersey and Good Counsel before beginning A Conference play.
McDonogh, meanwhile, will seek to match last fall's success against Benedictine. The Eagles beat the Cadets, 42-14.
Coach Dom Damico said McDonogh must watch out for versatile junior wide receiver Scott Bracey, rated the No. 2 player in Virginia and committed to Duke.
"Last year, we just jumped out on them early and it kept going our way and it just kind of got away from them, but I think they're a better team than they played against us last year, so we'll expect their best game," Damico said. "They'll be tough, but I think if you take care of Scott Bracey, you're going to be OK and that's what we're going to be focusing on, taking away their best player."
The Eagles certainly have the defense to handle Bracey, with senior linebackers Wyatt Cook, the All-Metro Defensive Player of the Year last season, and Connor Young returning, along with junior free safety Eric Burrell.
For St. Frances, Saturday's game will be a barometer. When they met Friendship Collegiate, a charter school in Washington D.C, early last season, the Panthers weren't quite ready for that level of competition.
They had rolled over Nease, Fla., the week before, but a couple of key mistakes helped Friendship get the jump on the Panthers early in the second half and take a 32-6 victory.
"It's going to be a good gauge for us to see how far along we've come from last year and our experience in the A Conference. I feel like we ended on a high note," said St. Frances coach Messay Hailemariam, whose team finished 3-3 in its A Conference debut last fall. "This year is a little bit different. Last year was kind of unknown, so now we know what we're walking into."
Hailemariam said he isn't sure what to expect from Friendship, but the Panthers have a strong contingent of upperclassmen led by defensive end Rahshaun Smith, rated the No. 1 junior player in Maryland by Rivals.com.
Because Friendship does not have a home field, the game will be played at Spingarn at 7:30 p.m.
In other A Conference action this weekend, Calvert Hall — which finished 3-9 last season after being decimated by injuries — hosts Irvine (Calif.) Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Loyola, which finished its 2013 season with a dramatic Turkey Bowl win over the Cardinals, opens its season at 4 p.m. Saturday at St. Paul's. Mount St. Joseph hosts Bishop McNamara for the Gaels' Hall of Fame game Saturday at 1 p.m.