The Maryland roster for the Big 33 Football Classic will be announced in early March, but the names of a few local players have already been released.
McDonogh’s Josh Woods, Meade’s Jake Hawk, Fallston’s Alex Helm and Archbishop Spalding's Zach Abey will play in the all-star game, which pits Maryland's best high school football players against Pennsylvania's.
River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen is the head coach for the Maryland team that will try to avenge last season’s 58-27 loss to Pennsylvania when it heads to Hersheypark Stadium for the June 14 classic.
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Van Deusen said the full roster will be announced after the team’s first meeting March 2 to make sure everyone who has been selected can still participate. Some players who signed late with colleges may have to miss the game to head to campus or because their college coaches prefer they not play.
Last summer, Maryland returned to the rivalry after a 21-year hiatus during which Pennsylvania’s best high school seniors played Ohio’s best. Van Deusen said the coaches learned a few things from last year’s experience that they hope will make this year’s event more competitive.
Two areas in particular he looked to bolster were the offensive line and the defensive backs.
“All-star games are kind of geared toward offense, so the defense has to play man coverage and you have to pass the ball about 50 percent of the time," he said. "So, knowing the rules a little bit better and seeing how the game went last year, we really focused on offensive linemen, and I think we’ve got some great ones.”
Hawk, a 6-foot-6, 285-pound left tackle headed for Navy, and Helm a 6-2, 285-pound center, were both All-Metro players last fall and will be joined by Middletown’s Justin Falcinelli, a 6-5, 300-pound tackle going to Clemson.
In addition to Maryland-bound Woods, a 6-2, 180-pound All-Metro wide receiver who can also play safety or cornerback, Marcus Allen, a 6-2, 190-pound safety-corner from Wise headed to Penn State, should help with pass coverage.
“In a passing game like this, you’ve got to have guys who can cover,” Van Deusen said. “Last year, they took a couple safety-type players who didn’t really fit into this game because you’re doing a lot of man coverage.
"With most of the formations, you’re not allowed to have a safety in the game, so we
focused more on corner back guys, cover guys, and I think we’ve got some excellent corners that will help us be a little more prepared for the format of the game this year.”
Van Deusen said selections for the team were extremely difficult. Coaches closely watched players in the Crab Bowl and in the Baltimore Touchdown Club all-star games and from those, they narrowed a list down to 64 after a tryout about two weeks ago.
Some of the players the coaches wanted included Gilman All-Metro defensive end-linebacker Melvin Keihn (Virginia Tech) and Middletown defensive end Ricky Leonard (Florida State). Both must leave for college before the game, but Van Deusen said there still were more good players than he could fit on the roster.
“We didn’t get all the guys we wanted, but I think the process was a little bit better than last year and we’ve got a good mix," he said. "We have six or seven private schools kids and then we have 27 or 28 public school kids. We have some kids from out in Western Maryland.
"We didn’t have great representation from the whole state last year. We didn’t have any Frederick kids and we didn’t have any Good Counsel or DeMatha kids, so I think we have a better spread this year from around the state.”
Although he still had to sell the game to some of the players, especially since for many it comes in their waning free days before college football, he said it was easier the second time around.
“Last year, it was tougher because the Maryland kids didn’t really know about the game. We hadn’t played in it for 20 years,” said Van Deusen, adding that a big selling point has been that every Super Bowl has included at least one Big 33 veteran. This year’s Super Bowl included three – Denver’s Zac Dysert and Steve Vallos and Seattle’s Jordan Hill.
“This year, the word got out and watching the game on the NFL Network last year, the kids knew a little bit more about the history of the game," Van Deusen said. "It was good that we had a lot of guys who were interested and wanted to play and showed up for the tryouts. That led to some difficult decisions, because we had some really good players who wanted to play, and weren’t selected just because we had to narrow it down to 34.”
Among the players named so far is the 6-2, 205-pound Spalding quarterback Abey, The Baltimore Sun’s All-Metro Offensive Player of the Year who will play for Navy.
DeMatha wide receiver Cameron Phillips (Virginia Tech), Wise tight end-defensive lineman Micah Till (North Carolina State) and Good Counsel defensive lineman Jemal Averette(Indiana-Pa.) are also on the roster.
Van Deusen has a few local coaches on his staff too -- Eastern Tech’s Marc Mesaros will coach the defensive line and River Hill assistant coach Tom Gruneberg will coach the offensive line. St. Paul’s assistant coach Scott Ripley will serve as game coordinator.
Also on the staff are Urbana’s Ryan Hines, the defensive coordinator; Wise’s DeLawn Parrish, the defensive backs coach; Good Counsel’s Don Rushing, defensive ends coach; Douglass-PG’s J.C. Pinkney, running backs’ coach; and Douglass-PG assistant coach Thurman Sutton, wide receivers coach.
Teams will hold practices in May before heading to Hershey June 8 for a week of practice and activities with host families.