In a 12-0 championship season, the No. 1 St. Frances football team had only one major disappointment — thanks to Hurricane Irma.
With the storm bearing down on Florida in September, the Panthers were unable to play their only nationally-televised game, Sept. 8 at IMG Academy in Bradenton.
However, putting together a perfect season and emerging as the No. 1 team in Maryland earned the Panthers the chance to finish their season on national television.
Ranked No. 11 in USA Today’s Super 25, the Panthers will play in the GEICO State Champions Bowl Series Saturday at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Ariz. When they kick off against No. 8 Bingham (Utah) at 6 p.m., the game will be televised live on ESPNU.
St. Frances coach Henry Russell said the entire experience will be a thrill for the players.
“A lot of our kids don’t get an opportunity to travel like this or to play a team from Utah,” Russell said. “Just the whole experience is what I’m most excited about for the kids — flying to Phoenix, I think we’re going to a museum on Friday morning, which will be fun and playing on TV. It’s always cool to have a game on ESPN and to play a team that’s ranked as high as No. 3 in one of the polls I saw. They’re a good team and the kids are excited to play one of the nation’s best.”
The Panthers want to show a nationwide audience just how good they are while enjoying the chance to finish their season — and for some, their careers — with a cross-country trip.
Senior linebacker Terrell Smith said it will be a bittersweet experience. Senior wide receiver Randy Fields agreed.
“The last game with these guys, you know it’s going to be a hard one,” Fields said, “because you develop relationships with people on this team that will last a lifetime, but everything comes to an end and the main goal ahead is to win the ball game.”
The Panthers won their second straight Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship this fall while Bingham (13-0) won the Utah Class 6A state championship. They are the only undefeated teams in the Bowl Series, which also features a clash of the top teams in Arizona and Florida.
The Miners, from just outside Salt Lake City, have played in the Bowl Series twice before but have not won a game. St. Frances is the first Maryland team to play in the event.
Junior running back Joachim Bangda leads St. Frances with 35 touchdowns, but the Panthers have been most dominant on defense. Led by Alabama-bound senior defensive end Eyabi Anoma, an Under Armour All-American and The Baltimore Sun’s All-Metro Defensive Player of the Year, they allowed only one team to score more than one touchdown in a game.
The players know they’re going against probably the best team they’ve faced all season.
“They’re a physical team,” Smith said. “They’re a downhill team, so we’ve just got to come out there on defense and give them what they’re not expecting. We’ve got to play hard and hit them hard.
“We’re looking for a great experience out there. We worked hard all season for this, so we’re just going out there ready to ball out.”