After rolling through an undefeated championship season by an average of 35 points, most football teams would have nothing left to prove.
The St. Frances players think they do.
"When you talk to everybody else, all they talk about was how we was in the C Conference and didn't play nobody," Panthers senior running back Maurice Williams said. "It's time to show the world that we can do it against a higher caliber."
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Third-year St. Frances coach Messay Hailemariam agrees, so the Panthers will take on the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference this fall.
No football team in the MIAA has ever jumped from the C Conference to the A Conference, but Hailemariam believes his Panthers, who finished 11-0 last season, are ready for the challenge after going 20-2 in the past two years and winning their past 17 games.
"For two years, we've been fairly successful with the competition we've played, but it was almost too easy," Hailemariam said. "For two reasons, that's bad.
"One, it develops a false sense of security. When you play teams that you overwhelm, it gives these kids a false sense of how hard they need to work or how hard they're working. The second thing is, when college coaches come in and watch film and evaluate the talent, it makes a coach think, 'How good can this kid be against an opponent who can match his skill set?' "
That lack of competition cost some players scholarships, Hailemariam said, and his ultimate goal is to get them into college, to use football as a means to improve their lives. Many of the Panthers come from economic hardship in neighborhoods around Baltimore City, the surrounding counties and the Washington, D.C. area. Three are from Nigeria. Still, they all pay tuition. There are no free rides at St. Frances.
Although many Panthers are being recruited, including some by Ivy League schools, the coach said there's already more interest from college coaches with the move up to the A Conference.
The goal of the program since it began five years ago has always been to compete in the A Conference, said Sister John Francis Schilling, president of the small Catholic school in East Baltimore. The plan, however, called for a more gradual ascent. The program previously experienced growing pains, struggling in its first three years, including 0-8 in the B Conference in 2010 before dropping to the C Conference.
"It is a risk," she said, "but our coach felt that we were ready, and I have to trust his judgment, because he's won the 'C' for the last two years. The thing that encourages me is that he's really a faith-based person, and he's not just interested in football, but he's interested in making our young men into God-fearing, good Christian young men and academically superior. He doesn't care what people are saying. He just believes he's going to be able to do this with God's help and we'll see."
To prepare the Panthers for A Conference competition, Hailemariam put together a loaded nonleague schedule — all on the road.
The Panthers left Wednesday for Orlando to open the season against Nease (Fla.) in Friday's Kick Off Classic at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. After that, they play Friendship Collegiate (D.C.) followed by Good Counsel and DeMatha, the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the preseason state media poll.
Ask veteran running back Mark Velasquez about St. Frances' schedule and the look in his eyes says, "Wow." Then the grin on his face says, "Bring it on."
"I'm extremely excited because we've got a lot of talent, from linemen to skill guys," the senior said. "I'm not worried about it. The biggest challenge will be how we get over adversity, but I think we'll do pretty good with that. I know some of these guys from the neighborhood, and I know we can get over some things."
Don't think Velasquez is talking about losing. The Panthers will deal with that when the time comes. They've heard predictions that they won't win a game all season, but they believe they can go undefeated.
Despite returning only 17 varsity players, they have exceptional talent, especially in the skill positions. Williams, Velasquez and fellow senior running back Mike Bell carried much of the load last season, and the Panthers have added Hakeem Holland, a talented transfer from Edmondson, to the backfield.
Nine players also move up from a freshman-sophomore team that played in the A Conference and went undefeated, an accomplishment Calvert Hall coach Donald Davis said means a lot — and not just because of the title.
"From a mental standpoint, it makes a difference because those kids have lined up against kids from Gilman, from Calvert Hall, from Spalding and they've won," Davis said. "They've played in those stadiums — they beat us in the championship at Calvert Hall. The trips to those schools, the environment, the uniforms — now, they're not foreign. I think that was a vital piece to them ultimately being successful."
Without a junior varsity team to feed his varsity, Hailemariam built this team with transfers — 30 on his 56-man varsity roster. Otherwise, he couldn't compensate for the 21 players who graduated or left the program after last season.
To bolster both lines, which would have been a lethal weakness for St. Frances in the A Conference with only two returning starters — 5-foot-11, 200-pound center Mike Berry and 6-foot, 300-pound guard Kyshawn Cherie — Hailemariam needed to bring in more players. Among those he added: 6-foot-3, 270-pound offensive tackle-defensive end Julian Lynn from Oakdale in Frederick County; 6-foot-2, 285-pound guard-defensive tackle Dalonte Jenifer from Mervo; and 6-foot-4, 285-pound tackle Shamdu Nalls from Owings Mills.
The main position that remains untested is quarterback, where the top two are senior transfers. The starter likely will be David Bryant, from Marriotts Ridge, with Quantaye Battle, from Edmondson, as the backup.
"We'd be lying if we didn't say we needed to replenish the program," Hailemariam said. "We inquired if some kids were available, but a lot of kids came to us because of the success we had, although at a lower level. And the kids were recruiting each other. There's a misconception among some coaches that we wanted to steal their players, but that's not necessarily the way it happened."
Hailemariam, 40, played high school football at Wootton in Montgomery County and walked on at Maryland, and he understands the challenge his players and all-volunteer coaches face by jumping to the A Conference and loading up the nonconference schedule. No matter what happens, he sees the move as "a platform" to build the program and generate enrollment at St. Frances, which has 98 of its 135 boys playing football.
"My mission is for them to go to school, and that's really the ultimate reason we do what we do," he said. "The winning is awesome. Don't get that twisted. I'm a coach and I like to win. I like to compete and show them what it takes to win, but I would like to be challenged as a coach and as a coaching staff and these will be the best teams we're playing against.
"It's going to be a growing process for all of us, but the challenge is worthwhile. If you're going to sacrifice, you might as well try to do it at a level that makes sense."
St. Frances schedule
Aug. 23: vs. Nease (Fla.) in Orlando, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 1: vs. Friendship Collegiate (D.C.) at Byrd Stadium, 1 p.m.
Sept. 6: at Good Counsel, 7 p.m.
Sept. 13: vs. DeMatha at P.G. Sports and Learning Complex, 7 p.m.
Sept. 20: at Wythe (Richmond, Va.), 7 p.m.
Sept. 28: at Calvert Hall, 2 p.m.
Oct. 4: at Archbishop Spalding, 7 p.m.
Oct. 12: vs. McDonogh at Utz Field, 4 p.m.
Oct. 19: at Loyola, noon
Oct. 26: vs. Mount St. Joseph at Utz Field, 4 p.m.
Nov. 2: vs. Gilman at Utz Field, 4 p.m.
Nov. 28: at Eastern Christian, noon