The state high school football championships will move to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis this fall after a 14-year run at M&T Bank Stadium, where a natural grass field replaced artificial turf in May.
Ravens officials said the new natural grass likely could not sustain four football games between Dec. 1 and 3 and be in good shape for the Ravens to play the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, Dec. 4.
Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium has artificial turf and Andy Warner, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletics Association, said the Naval Academy’s stadium has all the amenities state officials require for athletes and spectators.
“It’s absolutely beautiful -- seating on both sides of the facility, availability to provide locker rooms for each team coming, Warner said. "And when you think about the venues in our state – and we really pride ourselves on taking our state championships to some of the best venues in the state – I think you take an overall look at the stadium and parking right next to the stadium, the entrances, the seating capacity, the seating viewpoints, the accessibility for the teams, it offers a complete package of what you’re looking for for the state championships."
Dunbar coach Lawrence Smith, who has coached the Poets at M&T Bank Stadium six times -- and won five titles -- since he took over the program in 2007, likes the move.
He said he doesn't think players will be disappointed.
"Great move. M&T is too big. It will bring a great college atmosphere there," said Smith. "I don't know why it moved, but it should have been returned to a college. I always wanted it at Morgan or Navy, maybe even Towson. It will give it a major atmosphere."
M&T Bank Stadium's capacity is about 71,000 while Navy Marine-Corps Memorial Stadium holds about 38,000
"At 38,000, we feel that we're the right size for this event and we're very excited to have it here," said Bill Givens, Navy associate athletic director for operations.
Givens believes it's good for the players and good for Navy.
"Any time that you can get student-athletes, football players on your field into your venue, it's great," he said. "One, it's great exposure for the kids playing in a collegiate stadium, but also the exposure to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, the field that they could potentially be playing on one day.
The plan remains to play one state final game Thursday night, Dec. 1, one Friday night, Dec. 2 and two Saturday, Dec. 3.
However, those plans will have to change if Navy's football team finishes its season with the best record in the American Athletic Conference and hosts the championship game on Dec. 2.
Last year, it came down to the final regular-season game when Navy fell to Houston and Houston hosted the conference championship. Givens said his staff is preparing for both.
If Navy hosts, the MPSSAA would have to move both Saturday games and almost certainly the Friday game, Givens said, because of the college teams' Friday walk through and press conference. It's possible all four games would have to be changed.
Warner said the games could move to a different site or move to other days the following week at Navy.
It's almost impossible to have a set contingency plan because most of the other college fields the MPSSAA might use have the same issue with possibly hosting games in football or soccer.
The state has had to adjust its plans for state championships in many sports over the years, most recently in May when the Big East Baseball Championship was held at Ripken Stadium, forcing state officials to move one state final to College Park and delay the other three.
"To me, it's not that big a deal, because we're used to making these types of adjustments if necessary. Lots of things come up when you don't own a facility," Warner said. "We're as flexible as we can be coming up with back-up plans."
M&T Bank Stadium will continue to host the City-Poly and Calvert Hall-Loyola rivalry football games, but they are just single games – City Poly on Nov. 5 and Calvert Hall-Loyola on Thanksgiving Day.
Four games in three days, however, could be too much, said Kevin Byrne, vice president of public and community relations for the Ravens.
“We felt that it would just be too much wear and tear on the field to do it this year,” Byrne said of the state finals. “We’re still going to host Poly-City and Calvert Hall-Loyola and we’ll still have events in the off season on the field, but we’ll have to assess this as we go forward, because frankly we haven’t had a grass field for a long time.”
Byrne said the Ravens have seen first hand what a run of high school state championships can do to a grass field.
“We played Pittsburgh a few years ago where they hosted state high school championships and it rained a lot the previous couple of days,” Byrne said. “We played there on Sunday and the field was not in good shape and we had some discussion between the Steelers and the [NFL] before the game was played, so we thought we’d be cautious especially in the first year that we had a grass field.”
The deal with Navy is for one year and Byrne and Warner saidiwhile t’s possible the state championships could return to M&T someday, there are no plans for that now.
Warner said he expects coaches and players will embrace the chance to play at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
“I think it’s going to be a great experience,” he said.” There’s such a strong tradition of Navy sports and Navy football, the opportunity dress in their locker rooms and compete on the same field that the Naval Academy competes on, I think that’s pretty special in itself.
"It was special at M&T Bank, the home of the Ravens, but with the grass field there and the number of games we have to play there in a few days’ span, that causes some other issues, so we are very thankful to them for the years they opened up their stadium to us. But just like when football moved from the University of Maryland to M&T Bank, it’s a new opportunity, a new chapter in our state championship history and I think it’s something to look forward to.”