COLLEGE PARK — Through the first half Sunday, St. Frances' football team stuck close to Friendship Collegiate Academy from Washington D.C., the best team the Panthers have played in the five-year history of their program.
In the third quarter, however, Friendship took advantage of short field position and four Panthers turnovers to score four touchdowns and come away with a 32-6 victory in the Brothers In Arms Classic at Byrd Stadium.
The Knights (2-0) gave St. Frances a rude awakening to the kind of competition they can expect the rest of the season with a schedule that includes such Maryland powerhouses as Gilman, Good Counsel and DeMatha.
"I thought we played with a lot of energy and a lot of passion, but you could tell our inexperience at these level of games kind of came back to haunt us in the second half," Panthers coach Messay Hailemariam said. "I didn't know how we were going to respond in situations like this, and we did fairly well. I thought that the mistakes we made overall on offense, the turnovers, were the difference in the game. We ended up with six turnovers, and I don't care who you play ..."
The game against Friendship, a charter school program that has gained national notice and is ranked No. 9 in The Washington Post's poll, was part of Hailemariam's plan to prepare the Panthers for their debut later this fall in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference after winning back-to-back C Conference titles.
Last weekend, the Panthers (1-1) traveled to Orlando and defeated Nease (Fla.), 48-7, but the Friendship Collegiate proved much tougher and showed it with a five-play, 65-yard scoring drive to open the game.
On a 93-degree day on Byrd Stadium's synthetic turf, it didn't help the Panthers to be without one of their top running backs, Maurice Williams, who had to sit out after being ejected from the Nease game for an on-field scuffle.
Mark Velasquez (19 carries for 59 yards) and Mike Bell (six carries for 19 yards) did most of the running, but they wore down against the Knights' huge line. The Panthers' only touchdown came from the defense when Ryan Marine recovered a fumble and ran it in from two yards to pull St. Frances as close as it would get, 7-6, with 3:55 left in the first half.
Even though they trailed at the half for the first time in two years, the Panthers felt good about being so close at the break. That feeling didn't last long.
The Panthers turned the ball over on their first drive of the third quarter, and the Knights responded with a four-play, 56-yard drive capped by DeAndre Parker's second touchdown pass of the game, 46 yards to Robert Johnson Jr.
After going three and out on their next drive, the Panthers' punt went just four yards, setting the Knights up on St. Frances' 33-yard line. Two plays later, Parker hit Edward Morgan with a 27-yard scoring strike.
On the next play from scrimmage, Knights defensive back DaVonta Lee tipped David Bryant's pass attempt and Malik Harris snatched it out of the air and ran 31 yards untouched to the end zone. That gave the Knights a 26-6 lead with 5:34 left in the third quarter. They added Kelvit Barrett's 21-yard touchdown run four minutes later after Lee recovered a fumble on St. Frances' 28-yard line.
Defensively, the Panthers didn't play poorly. They just wore down with so much playing time and too many short fields. Marine had a sack and two fumble recoveries. Christian Malik also recovered a fumble.
All through preseason, Hailemariam preached to his players that they would have to overcome adversity this season whether within a game or between games.
"We have to finish. We have to stay disciplined and execute when we have the opportunity to do so and just come back for the work on Monday," Hailemariam said. "I think that not having Maurice makes a huge difference on offense. We had some players in there that haven't had a lot of game experience, and it showed, because Mike and Mark wore down a lot. It's hot, so Maurice would have been there to take about 10 or 15 touches and take the pressure off."
Marine said the loss will help the Panthers as they move on to play the top two teams in the preseason state media poll — Good Counsel on Friday and DeMatha next week.
"It's a big wake-up call," the senior linebacker said. "We know what we've got to do from here on out. We can't take no plays off the ball. We've got to condition more, keep our heads up and keep moving. Our first half play was excellent, but we've just got to do better, learn from the loss."
FC 7 0 25 0 — 32
SF 0 6 0 0 — 6
FC—Haden 37 pass from Parker (A.Jones kick)
SF—Marine 2 fumble rec. (pass failed)
FC—R. Johnson 46 pass from Parker (A.Jones kick)
FC—Morgan 27 pass from Parker (kick failed)
FC—Harris 23 interception ret. (kick failed)
FC—Barrett 21 run (kick failed)Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun