Football practice begins Monday in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference with still no word from league officials about the ramifications of opponents dropping two-time defending champion St. Frances from their schedules earlier this summer.
As their players take the field, coaches still won’t know whether all of those games must be forfeited. They also won’t know whether a conference champion will be decided on the field or St. Frances will be awarded the title.
In May, Mount Saint Joseph, Calvert Hall and McDonogh announced that they would not play St. Frances this fall, citing safety concerns. Archbishop Spalding and Gilman soon followed, leaving St. Frances with no A Conference opponents.
St. Frances, which has had a large number of transfers compared with the other schools, outscored A Conference opponents 534-61 last fall and, those opponents contend, had become too big and too strong for the league.
MIAA executive director Lee Dove said the league’s final decision on the forfeits and the championship will be announced before the coaches meet Aug. 14.
The MIAA Executive Committee reached “some conclusions” at its meeting June 27, Dove said, but some members then had second thoughts.
“We sent out a draft letter to all board members to sign off on,” he said. “Of course, after you have time to process and think, there were a couple of concerns about, ‘is this what we truly want to say?’ This is such a difficult situation — we’ve never dealt with anything like this — that we just want to make sure that whatever we put out there is going to be specific, is going to have to some teeth to it, is what we’re going to stand behind whatever praise or criticism may come. It’s taking so long because we want to get it right and I don’t even know if that’s possible.”
As coaches prepared for the first day of practice, they weren’t thinking about the MIAA rulings to come. They were focused on football.
“In our program, we talk about control the controllable. That’s a really big statement that I talk about with our kids all the time,” Spalding coach Kyle Schmitt said.
“Honestly, we play Good Counsel in 26 days [Aug. 31] and our focus, regardless, in training camp is internally, totally focused on getting better and improving ourselves day by day. ... If there’s an announcement made in the coming weeks, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
At St. Frances, co-coach Henry Russell said the Panthers are not looking back.
“In our eyes, we’ve already won the championship this year. After we submitted our letter to the MIAA with our intentions to play an independent schedule in place of games we were told were forfeits, we got no response, so we just kind of moved on and want to make the best out of the season for everybody involved, our kids, our coaches and our school,” said Russell, whose program has not left the A Conference.
“I think we’ve kind of turned the page and said, ‘Hey, it is what it is. They’re not going to play us and we need to prepare for what lies ahead.’ For us, that’s three scrimmages and then a top 15 team in the country in St. Joe Prep out of Philadelphia, so that’s where our focus is.”
The Panthers open against St. Joseph’s Prep at Maryland Stadium in College Park on Aug. 31 at 7:30 p.m. Russell said they have nine opponents lined up but are working to add two more.
St. Frances, a powerhouse since Biff Poggi’s Gilman coaching staff moved to the East Baltimore Catholic school two years ago, has rolled undefeated through the MIAA A Conference two straight years and, last fall, finished No. 4 in USA Today’s Super 25.
Rumblings that St. Frances had grown too strong for the conference began emerging through last season, and on May 29, Mount Saint Joseph officials were the first to announce they would not play St. Frances. Loyola Blakefield had announced in January that it would not compete in the conference temporarily after two winless seasons.
Hearing about safety concerns, St. Frances athletic director Nick Myles and Russell countered that those teams didn’t drop Gilman when the Greyhounds were dominating the conference with 13 championships in 19 years. St. Frances president Dr. Curtis Turner told The Baltimore Sun that he believed the decisions were racially motivated. St. Frances is the only predominantly African American school in the conference.
On June, 6, MIAA officials announced they would review the league policy on forfeits. Mount Saint Joseph, Calvert Hall and McDonogh were told not to schedule games in place of St. Frances. Archbishop Spalding and GIlman, who dropped St. Frances after the independent schedule was announced, were not mentioned.