St. Frances football faces struggle to put together schedule after MIAA departures

St. Frances’ national powerhouse football team has lost another Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association rival from its schedule with Calvert Hall officials confirming Thursday that the school will join Mount Saint Joseph and Loyola Blakefield in not playing the Panthers this fall.

The Panthers, who were ranked No. 4 in USA Today’s Super 25 after a 13-0 season in 2017, are expected by some local coaches to be the best high school football team in the country next season. Administrators at Calvert Hall and Mount Saint Joseph have also decided the Panthers have outgrown the MIAA A Conference.

The athletic directors at McDonogh, Archbishop Spalding and Gilman said they have not decided whether to keep St. Frances on their 2018 schedules. The MIAA’s athletic directors hold their annual retreat on the Eastern Shore next week and those decisions likely will come after that.

The decision for teams to not play St. Frances includes a safety element. While the Panthers aren’t doing anything they shouldn’t be on the field, they have many Division I prospects and are considered too strong and too deep for most opponents to contend with.

McDonogh, which has yet to decide whether to play St. Frances next season, had two players suffer broken bones and another have a stress fracture in the Eagles’ regular-season game against the Panthers last fall. McDonogh coach Dom Damico, who stepped down in April, said the Panthers are just at another level.

“They’re just a way better team,” Damico said after his team’s loss to St. Frances in October. “They’re bigger, stronger, faster, better. They’re like a college football team. It’s like a college team versus a high school team. We’re not deep enough or strong enough to play them. That’s just a different breed of football. … They’re playing at the national level trying to win a national championship. We’re trying to make the playoffs in the A Conference. It’s a different approach, but they’re a great team.”

After last season, St. Frances principal Dr. Curtis Turner said school officials had considered playing an independent schedule, but they believed MIAA rules prohibited a school from having one sport play an independent schedule while the others remained in the league.

However, with opponents dropping the Panthers now, they likely will have trouble filling out a full schedule for this fall.

“If we knew this in January, my coaches are, ‘Yeah, we could put together an independent schedule,’ ” Turner said. “That’s never been part of the rules and then to have this happen in May, our coaches are scrambling to get games. It just seems like there are certain rules that can be bent except when it comes to us and now that we’re good, everybody’s like, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ Well, we asked this like six years ago when we were struggling.”

Turner said when St. Frances began its football program 10 years ago, it played an independent schedule but was sanctioned by the league for it. There were no penalties imposed on the team but, he said, “When you’re reprimanded you get a clear sense, don’t do that again.”

Lee Dove, executive director of the MIAA since 2013, said the league requires its members to participate in all of its sports in MIAA play. Earlier this year, league officials granted Loyola Blakefield, an A Conference football team last season, permission to play an independent schedule in 2018, because “they were going through such a competitive disparity with all teams.”

The Dons could not move to the B Conference for another year because the league allows such movement only every two years and is in mid-cycle. Loyola officials plan to return to the MIAA perhaps as early as 2019.

The Panthers came back into the MIAA and won two straight C Conference championships before moving to the A Conference in 2013. They had an overall losing record for three years, but had wins over Calvert Hall, Mount Saint Joseph and McDonogh. In 2015, however, they lost every conference game.

In January 2016, coach Biff Poggi left Gilman and moved most of his coaching staff to St. Frances. He spent that fall as an assistant coach at Michigan while Henry Russell, his top Gilman assistant, coached the Panthers. Last fall, the two were co-head coaches at St. Frances.

According to Turner, Poggi, a hedge-fund manager, had been bankrolling the Panthers program from the start, donating about $60,000 in seed money. While coaching at Gilman, he also served on the School Board at St. Frances, a small Catholic school in East Baltimore.

In addition, Poggi has funded scholarships for about 40 students per year, Turner said, confirming what was first reported in the Catholic Review last winter. Some receiving scholarships are not top-level players but need tuition assistance, and he is paying for housing for football players from out of town in Canton.

Poggi also funded tuition for some students at Gilman, where he coached football for 19 years. His Greyhounds won 13 A Conference titles, and in his final season in 2015, they went undefeated in the A Conference, finished 10-1 and were ranked No. 13 in the country.

Turner said he’s been asked why there are so many transfer students on the football team and how that meshes with the mission of the school, which according to the St. Frances website, “provides the immediate neighborhood and the Baltimore area relevant educational programs.”

He said one father of a player from Richmond, Va., told him that area has distressed neighborhoods, too, but it has no school like St. Frances, the oldest continuously operating, predominantly African-American Catholic high school in the country, according to the school’s website.

In his official statement from the school about the MIAA teams declining to play St. Frances in football this fall, Turner noted the diversity of schools in the MIAA and called that “its strength.”

“With the exception of our social-economic demographic, we resemble any other private school in Baltimore,” he said. “But it is that difference that is driving the current dynamic in the league.

“Reading the recent statement from Mount Saint Joseph High School and Calvert Hall College High School about our athletic league in general and Saint Frances Academy in particular has exposed a rift in the Baltimore community that many of us know exists, but few of us are willing to address. My community was angered and hurt by the insinuation that we don’t share the same values as other members. This is particularly harmful coming from other Catholic schools.”

Mount Saint Joseph coach Rich Holzer posted a letter from himself and athletic director Kraig Loovis on msjfootball.teamapp.com Tuesday stating the school would not play St. Frances in the fall. The letter cited the reasons as St. Frances’ many transfers and safety concerns.

Calvert Hall officials confirmed Thursday that their football team will not play St. Frances this fall, becoming the third MIAA team to drop the Panthers from their schedule.

“Our decision wasn’t made lightly, but given the size of the athletic disparity, we believe this is the best for our players, our program and our school,” Calvert Hall director of communications and marketing Danielle Hladky said in a statement.

Hladky declined to elaborate.

Former Calvert Hall boys soccer coach Andy Moore, the father of Calvert Hall punter Peter Moore, said the school made the right call.

“I have to say as a parent, I’m in full support of Calvert Hall’s decision,” he said. “For me, first and foremost, playing in a competitive environment where there’s a level playing field is important and I think that has gotten skewed in the A Conference the last couple years. And while you want to have good, competitive balance in all sports, it’s particularly important in football because then you’re talking about safety issues.

“I think there’s a size and speed difference in [St. Frances] that has created an imbalanced situation. Honestly, I think the Calvert Hall game was the most competitive [against St. Frances] in the regular season and it was still clear they were not two teams that had athletes playing at the same level. As a parent, it’s scary to see your son out there vulnerable as a punter when they are running at him.”

Dom Cottone, the father of Calvert Hall senior kicker Chris Cottone, agreed with Moore.

“All I could see is when St. Frances came, they were physically more mature,” Cottone said. “You can tell a man’s a man and boy’s a boy and there was a disparity involved. I gulped because I’m all of 5-7 and my kid is 5-10 and it was like, ‘Gosh, I wouldn’t want to be out there against these guys.’ They looked like cut Division I players. I support the administration’s decision. It only highlighted safety issues and I’ll always be on the side of player safety.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Glenn Graham contributed to this article.

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kdunnsun

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