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Maryland high school all-stars face big challenge, need big plays in Big 33 Football Classic

When Maryland plays Pennsylvania in the annual Big 33 Football Classic, Pennsylvania's always mountainous line gets a lot of attention. Maryland coaches, however, say that's not the key to winning.

The key is making the big plays.

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Last year, Maryland didn't make any big plays and lost. Two years ago, Maryland made a lot of big plays and won.

When the two teams meet Saturday night at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa., for the 59th edition of the all-star game that has pitted Pennsylvania against several different states, the Marylanders hope their big-play guys can make the difference.

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"I believe our wide receiver corps is pretty good this year," said Maryland coach DaLawn Parrish. "They can make people miss in space. They're very fast. They're active. Our first practice, I don't remember one ball being dropped."

Among the receivers Parrish will be counting on are four from the Baltimore area — first-team All-Metro selection Tre Hopkins, from Oakland Mills, second-team pick Michael Johnson from Owings Mills; Dae'lun Darien, from Dunbar; and Christian Heyward, from Mount Saint Joseph.

Parrish, who has coached Wise to two straight Class 4A state championships, said he and the other coaches of Maryland's Big 33 team face their biggest challenge in just getting the best to play in the summer game. Most players headed to Football Bowl Subdivision schools must enroll in summer school to pick up a few credits and get acclimated to their college surroundings well before football practice starts.

Some have to pull out at the last minute, including Franklin's three-time All-Metro athlete Steven Smothers, who reported to West Virginia last week but thought he could play until a few days before he had to be in Morgantown.

"So many young men have to report early to school that just fielding a team is becoming very difficult," Parrish said. "The major issue with [Pennsylvania] is matching up with them in the front seven. In terms of Division I players per capita, they have more. We do very well in our state producing those types of players, but when we have a lot that don't want to play, it affects us dramatically, but our young men go up there and they fight real hard. We've been successful before and we plan on doing our best again."

Because Maryland has been in and out of the Big 33 game, returning to it in 2013 after a 21-year hiatus, the tradition isn't ingrained in the high school football culture here the way it is in Pennsylvania where it's known as the "Super Bowl of High School Football." Every actual Super Bowl has included at least one Big 33 alum.

Pennsylvania leads the series 8-3, but Maryland could even the score of its most recent stint with a win Saturday night. Pennsylvania won two of the past three games, starting with 58-27 in 2013.

Two years ago, Maryland won 31-24 in double overtime when Milford Mill's Reggie White Jr. (Monmouth) caught the game-winning touchdown pass. McDonogh's Josh Woods (Maryland) ran an interception back for a 24-0 Maryland lead before Pennsylvania rallied to tie.

Last year, Pennsylvania won 20-3 in a game called at halftime because of persistent thunderstorms. Pennsylvania had a couple of big plays to break it open while Maryland managed just a field goal despite several chances including two drives inside the Pennsylvania 20-yard line.

Archbishop Curley's Sean Murphy, last year's coach, said Pennsylvania's line was not overwhelming. He said the smaller Maryland line held its opponents to minus-4 yards rushing.

"Pennsylvania had four of their five linemen going to Penn State, Pitt or Temple," Murphy said, "and our kids were going to small colleges and we dominated the line of scrimmage. Those kids are good players. They might not be 6-6 — they're maybe 6-2 — but they're good football players. I was impressed with the kids we had last year. We hung with them and we were moving the ball. We just didn't hit the big plays."

The Big 33 rules — including the one limiting defenses to man-to-man coverage with no blitzing — favor a passing game and last year Pennsylvania quarterback Brett Brumbaugh was 5-for-7 for 219 yards and three touchdowns. Maryland's quarterbacks combined for less than 100 yards and threw two interceptions.

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"The rules are based on offensive production," Parish said, "so there's only so many things you can do defensively and that's what makes it even more challenging. If you can't match up up front, with the rules, it's very difficult to keep up, but on the flip side of that, it's supposed to be an offensive game, so if you can get the ball to your perimeter guys, you can be very effective in the sense that [the defense has] to be in a seven-man box, they have to play zero coverage. That should be able to help us and hopefully we can block them up front and we can get the ball in space."

In addition to the wide receiver corps, seven other players from the Baltimore area will try to bring home the win — Old Mill's All-Metro first-team running back Pete Boone, Eastern Tech's first-team All-Metro linebacker Brandon Hlavach, Mount Saint Joseph cornerback Manny Patterson, McDonogh guard Gavin Clark, McDonogh defensive tackle Alton Lacks, McDonogh kicker Mike Shinsky, Manchester Valley defensive tackle Parker Reitz and Meade defensive end Will Huff. Milford Mill split end Dana Jackson is injured and unable to play.

Milford Mill's Reggie White Sr. and Atholton's Justin Carey are coaching with Parrish.

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