Biff Poggi has returned after a year as part of the Michgan football coaching staff to become co-head coach at St. Frances as the Panthers set out to defend their Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship.
After guiding Gilman to a 10-1 season and an undefeated run through the A Conference in 2015, Poggi took a position on Jim Harbaugh’s staff while most of the Gilman staff moved to St. Frances.
With Poggi in Ann Arbor, former Gilman assistant coach Henry Russell took over and molded the Panthers into a No. 1 team that went 10-2 and undefeated through the A Conference after finishing 0-6 the previous season. Poggi and Russell will be co-head coaches this fall.
Poggi said last year that he planned to stay at Michigan for a year or two. Two of his five children attend Michigan, but the youngest drew him back to Baltimore for at least the next four years.
“I absolutely loved it and I thought I would be [at Michigan] for a very long time,” Poggi said, adding that his contract had been extended. “But my daughter starts ninth grade this year. She’s been at the same school her whole life and been in Baltimore her whole life and while I could do a year of hotels and traveling back and forth, I couldn’t do two. She didn’t want to move, so we decided as a family we were going to get her through high school, let her graduate and we will see what happens after that.
“I had a blast [at Michigan]. I learned so much. I can’t tell you how much I learned. I had every day working with the head coach, but all that said, family is always first, so I’m coming back to St. Frances and I’m looking forward to it.”
Although the Panthers graduated key players, including Defensive Player of the Year Sam Thomas, they return a lot of talent, including All-Metro wide receiver Randy Fields, who committed to West Virginia on Sunday, and second-team All-Metro defensive end Eyabi Anoma, who has offers from Maryland, Alabama and Penn State, among others.
Fields and Anoma said there’s no difference in approach trying to defend their A Conference title than there was in trying to win the first one last year.
“It’s the same team, it’s just a different year and a couple of our seniors left,” Anoma said, pointing to lineman B’Ahmad Miller and Thomas. “Now they’ve passed the torch down to us. We were juniors last year and we’ve got to defend it. … We’ve got to keep pushing. They set the bar high and they pushed us.”
Fields said he doesn’t believe the Panthers feel like they have a target on their backs even after earning the No. 19 national ranking in the preseason MaxPreps high school football rankings ahead of No. 29 McDonogh and No. 40 Archbishop Spalding, likely their top challengers for the A Conference title. The only team in Maryland ranked ahead of St. Frances is No. 12 DeMatha.
“We know what it takes,” Fields said. “Gary Brightwell, Isaiah Robinson, Jordan Swann and them guys, they paved the road. They showed us what hard work is. They showed us what it meant to go to work every day and not let your foot up off the gas. So I feel as though as the leadership of the seniors on the team, we know how to kind of coach up the guys that are coming in, show them the ropes. We know the tempo and we know the level of play we should be playing at, so we’re going to keep them to that high standard.”
The Panthers began the first day of practice for MIAA teams Thursday with an hour of weightlifting and an hour of walk-through in the gym during the early afternoon. In the evening, they were scheduled to practice at Dunbar’s William F. “Sugar” Cain Field down the street in East Baltimore, where they will have some other practices and play at least one game, their opener on Aug. 26 against West Toronto (Canada).
As the coaches ran the players through drills in the gym, Russell said starting the season this year is a lot different for the staff after making the transition to St. Frances, which had almost none of Gilman’s amenities, including a practice field.
“There’s more stability,” Russell said. “The program is in place whereas last year we came in and everything was brand new. Every single day there was something new all the way probably up to week five when the kids are finally in a groove and understand what’s expected and as coaches what all our new challenges are, too.”
Most of last year’s Panthers team was new to the school and while there are transfers on this team, too, having about 25 returning players helps the coaches and players begin far ahead of where they were at this time last year.
Anoma said this group just needs a little time to jell.
"We’re a very talented team … but we need to be able to jell together quickly and get down the fundamentals of our defense and offense. We’ve just got to really work hard. We’ll be fine,” said Anoma, noting that MIAA officials moved the start of practice to three days later this season.
The Panthers hope to play at least one more game at Dunbar’s field, and also will play some games at Utz Field in Patterson Park, where they played last season.
Poggi said St. Frances officials are in discussion with Under Armour to play at Port Covington once the facilities there are completed.
In the meantime, Poggi said he will bring some of Harbaugh’s “outside-the-box” thinking to the Panthers’ program.
“I learned a lot from Jim Harbaugh on how to really practice with a team and we’re going to do a lot of things offensively that I learned from Jim that are going to give us a really good chance to score a lot of points, because we do have some really good kids and the kids are so enthusiastic it’s incredible.”