By Katherine Dunn, The Baltimore Sun
5:31 PM EDT, November 2, 2011
In many ways, Evan Chase and Nathan Carothers are typical high school football players. Both love the primal battle in the trenches, both skirmish fervently on game day and both embrace their teammates as family.
Their high school teams, however, are anything but typical.
Chase plays for the Maryland Christian Saints and Carothers plays for the Central Maryland Christian Crusaders. Neither team has an actual school.
Both cater to high-school aged boys who are home-schooled or attend a school without a football program. They are among three home-school football programs in the state and 70 nationally that play 11-on-11.
With more than 23,000 students in the state being home-schooled according to the latest Department of Education numbers, a group of parents that included current athletic director David Arenz and coach Tony DiPaola founded the Saints in Kingsville in 2005, because they did not want their sons to miss out on the high school football experience. The Crusaders' first coach, Eric Jorgensen, joined with another group of parents in Carroll County who followed the Saints' model a year later.
Some suggest home-school programs could eventually change the landscape of local high school football, but for the founders of the two local teams, that was far from their mission.
"In Pennsylvania, home-school kids are allowed to try out for the team at their school [in their district]," said DiPaola, who has four sons. "But in Maryland, you're not allowed to do that, and that kind of bothered me, because there's nothing different about these boys than the boys in the public schools or the private schools. They're just high school kids who love sports."
That included Chase and Carothers, both seniors who plan to continue playing in college. The son of Towson University Hall of Famer Skip Chase has Towson high on his list. Carothers likes Stevenson, which fielded its first team this fall.
Three and a half years ago, Chase, who has been home-schooled all his life, figured he would have to attend a traditional school to keep playing football when his Bel Air rec program ended with the eighth grade. He wanted to keep playing, but he liked the home-school lifestyle.
"It pretty much came down to whether I would be public schooled or stay home-schooled, and football really came into it," Chase, 17, said. "I heard about the Saints, and I went to one of their kick-off meetings to hear what they were about. We kind of just fell in love with it, so I played my last year of rec and the next year I went out for the Saints and absolutely loved it from the first whistle."
Although Chase and some others — including Christian and Titus DiPaola and Crusaders coach Mark Zinnamosca's son, Christian — came to their programs with football experience, many others had little or none.
Carothers, 18, played just a half year of rec ball and then quit. Jorgensen, the chairman of the board at Carothers' elementary school, St. Stephen's Classical Christian School in Eldersburg, talked him into giving it another try.
"He told me about the games, and when I was in eighth grade, I went to every home game," Carothers said. "I was like, 'Wow, I want to be a part of this.' I saw the kids on the team were good teammates. They cared about each other and had fun playing."
Although both programs welcome players of any denomination, both have strong Christian foundations and many of their players are home-schooled for religious reasons. Both received support from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes from the start, and the coaches and players consider the programs a ministry first.
"There's a brotherhood about it," Crusaders senior Nick Kaufman said. "We're all here under God, and we pray before each practice and we pray before each game. It kind of puts it all in a bigger perspective. There's something bigger than yourself. This game has a bigger point to it than just playing football. You're here to build yourself into a better person."
On the field, the Saints are thriving with 62 players and a 6-3 record, their only losses coming to No. 1 Gilman, Loyola and Mifflin County, Pa. Last season, the Saints turned heads with a victory over Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference contender Archbishop Curley, then went on to finish 13-0 and win the National Homeschool Football Association championship in Florida.
As defending champions, the Saints are headed back to the national tournament in two weeks. In the meantime, they will go after their third Mid-Atlantic Christian Conference title in four years when they host Fairfax in the semifinals Saturday at 1 p.m. The finals are Nov. 12, when the Crusaders also will play Victory Christian for fifth place in the conference.
With just 28 players, the Crusaders (3-6) haven't drawn quite as well, but coach Zinnamosca expects 24 back next season, and he's hoping to build a roster in the 40s in the next few years. Jorgensen said the Saints have had more players, because they have a denser population to draw from and more small schools in their eastern Baltimore County-Harford County area than the Crusaders have in western Baltimore County and Carroll County.
"For the record, we did beat the Saints," Jorgensen said with a laugh, "the first year we played them."
That annual meeting is a season highlight for both teams. It's a big rivalry game because, other than Frederick County HomeSchool, the other three teams they play in the Mid-Atlantic Christian Conference are located in Virginia. The home-school teams pick up a few other small schools as opponents, but Maryland public schools are not allowed to schedule games against them, because they are technically not schools.
In this year's meeting between the two local home-school teams on Sept. 17, the Saints rolled to a 58-6 victory on their home field at Beachmont Christian Camp in Kingsville. After the game, the Crusaders felt a bit downtrodden, but the Saints knew the feeling. They had lost to Gilman 68-9 three weeks earlier. In a post-game huddle surrounded by both cheerleading squads and most of the fans, the teams shared a prayer, heard inspirational talks from some of the coaches and talked positively about each other.
Encouraged to share their thoughts about the opposition, several players stood up and talked about how well their opponents had played. While the Saints had more to say at first, a few Crusaders chimed in too.
In addition to help from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, both programs have relied on fundraisers and donations. Former Ravens kicker Matt Stover has helped both programs. His donation, which came with a matching grant from the NFL, helped build the Saints' field at Beachmont.
DiPaola estimates it takes about $15,000 a year to run his program. Players pay a registration fee of $300 and a one-time equipment fee of $500. The Crusaders charge about the same. Both teams use their fields for free, as the Crusaders play on recreation fields in Eldersburg and Westminster.
Like any coach, DiPaola and Zinnamosca want to build the best programs they can. But both say their aim isn't to create a team that will one day run roughshod over the MIAA A Conference.
"With the Gilmans, kids are there for exposure," Zinnamosca said. "They're there for a particular purpose. It would be great if we could do that too, but we're going to hold to the homeschool kids, and I think the Saints will too. There's always a temptation to pull in some kids from high schools, but we want to be able to give the opportunity to kids who don't have it."
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