After the St. Frances football team started last season with a 48-7 win over Nease (Fla.) at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee, Fla., Panthers coach Messay Hailemariam and his players were eager to make another trip south to play Cocoa (Fla.) Saturday night.
Instead, a Florida high school athletics rule that was somehow overlooked last season forced the cancellation of the game.
Florida High School Athletic Association bylaws state that member schools cannot play opponents that do not belong to the National Federation of State High School Associations or are not "members in good standing of associations that are members of the NFHS."
St. Frances, like all Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association programs, is not a member of the NFHS. The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association -- which governs public school athletic programs -- is a member of the NFHS.
"We were trying to get the game sanctioned, but they won't do it," Hailemariam said. "I was trying to get a special exception -- both [coaches] were. It's not like we tried to hide it, because John Wilkinson, the coach at Cocoa, submitted the paperwork to sanction the game and they weren't budging at all. We didn't know we weren't allowed to play the game until about three weeks ago."
Not only did St. Frances play a FHSAA team last season, but so did Calvert Hall (Trinity Catholic from Ocala) and Gilman (Manatee from Bradenton).
Corey Sobers, a spokesman for the FHSAA, said none of those games should have taken place.
"It's not a new rule. That's standard across the board (for FHSAA schools)," Sobers said. "The reason is that if you're part of the federation, we know you follow the same guidelines because all state associations have some things in common in terms of age limit and years of eligibility and insurance requirements and things of that nature, so if you're under the NFHS umbrella, then we're all playing by the same rules.
"If you're not, then it could be the same, it could not be the same rules. That's why we tend to say unless it's a Florida school you need to be part of your state association or an affiliate member."
The Panthers will now open their season Aug. 30 -- the same weekend the rest of the MIAA A Conference kicks off -- at Friendship Collegiate Academy in Washington, D.C.