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When scheduling season opener, local football coaches look for right fit

Last winter when Milford Mill football coach Reggie White started thinking about teams he might schedule for the 2013 season opener, he first considered such powerhouses as Class 4A state champion Henry A. Wise or Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference runner-up Calvert Hall.

Even though the No. 9 Millers went 11-2 and reached the Class 3A state semifinals last fall, White figured that might be a little ambitious. Then, he thought about teams at the other end of the spectrum but didn't want a pushover.

"So now it's who can we play that's going to give us a good-look type of game," White said, "and we go through the process and certain teams don't want to play you because, 'I don't want to lose and start my season off like that,' so it ended up going down to the last minute when there are only two other schools open and you have to go ahead and schedule one if you haven't scheduled anybody yet. That's what happened with us and North Hagerstown."

Not that White is complaining about kicking off against the Hubs at home at 1 p.m. Saturday. He scouted North Hagerstown, a Class 2A West regional semifinalist that finished 9-2 last year, and he expects a competitive game.

That's exactly what most coaches are looking for in a season opener — a game that's not too tough, but also not too easy. Many coaches look outside their county and some, who meet coaches from around the country at camps and clinics, look beyond the state — such as No. 6 Dunbar, which hosts Mansfield (Mass.) on Friday.

Others, such as Franklin coach Anthony Burgos, aim to take a big step up with their programs. Burgos scheduled Calvert Hall for the No. 10 Indians' first game against an MIAA A Conference opponent.

"As a program, we're just looking to challenge ourselves every year, and we feel like game one is not going to be the determining factor in our season," said Burgos, whose team lost, 20-0, to Prince George's County's Wise last fall and won the next 10 games.

"We think we've closed the talent-level gap. Particularly for these next two years, we felt we have a very strong team returning, and we felt we had guys who could start at Calvert Hall or any of the private schools, so we thought it was a good fit for us."

Sometimes it can be tough to find a good matchup because the pool of available opponents is limited. In some counties, including Anne Arundel and Howard, teams are locked into a 10-game county schedule and can't play any nonleague games.

Others, such as Carroll County, prefer to schedule out-of-county games within their Monocacy Valley Athletic League. Games against Frederick and Washington county teams take priority, according to Carroll County supervisor of athletics James Rodriguez.

"We offer coaches the opportunity to play someone they'd like to play, and we do our best to honor those requests," said Rodriguez, who is part of the committee that manually assembles the MVAL schedule each year. "But if we're going to be a league, we've sort of committed that we're going to play each other first before we look outside."

Manchester Valley opens with Forestville, from Prince George's County, and North Carroll faces Pikesville, but the rest of the Carroll County teams start the season with MVAL opponents, including No. 7 Westminster, which hosts two-time defending Class 2A state champion Middletown, from Frederick County.

Most public school football coaches have only one game outside their city or county schedule. That's usually the season opener, so they're looking for the right level of competition to set a tone for the season — win or lose.

"If you think you're a playoff-caliber team, you want to schedule another playoff-caliber team to get you ready for the season," Perry Hall coach Keith Robinson said.

For the past two years, Robinson's No. 15 Gators have played St. Paul's, but after two good games with the Crusaders, he opted for a change. He and North Harford coach Ken Brinkman had scheduled scrimmages in the past few years, and both wanted that to evolve into a game, so Perry Hall will open the season at North Harford on Friday night.

"I don't think it does anybody any good to schedule somebody that you know is going to be an easy win," Robinson said, "because while you might get a few win points, I'm not sure it's really getting you ready for what's coming. I look for a competitive game, someone that's going to prepare us for the county season. If you win that game, you're going to reap the rewards later on in the year, because that team will go on to win games and earn you bonus points [toward the playoffs]."

In regional football standings, the Maryland Public Schools Secondary Athletic Association awards points not just for a team's wins, but also for the number of wins earned by each opponent it defeats.

If Catonsville, for example, beats Frederick County's Thomas Johnson on Friday, the Comets get seven points for beating a Class 3A team, but if Thomas Johnson goes on to finish 9-1, the Comets get nine bonus points.

As coaches schedule their season openers, not everyone is as fortunate as White. Some just can't find the right match. When that happens, Catonsville coach Rich Hambor prefers to take a bye.

While most teams play a 10-game schedule, the MPSSAA requires only nine to get into the playoffs.

"There's actually been a couple years over the last 10 where we've only played a nine-game schedule," Hambor said, "because the teams that were available that bye week were teams that we really thought we didn't have a chance to beat, or we thought if we beat them, would end up going 0-10 or 1-9, which was actually going to hurt us in the computer standings."

No matter what reasoning goes into scheduling a season opener, coaches — and players — are eager to get the season underway.

"Week One has high expectations," White said. "Everybody's undefeated. After that first game, everybody's either going to be 1,000 percent or they're going to be 0 percent. With that being said, you've prepared all year, you've lifted weights, you've run all the drills you can run and all the gassers you can run, and you go in there with your best game plan and you see how the kids are going to react."

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

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