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 probably could not take four football games between Dec. 1-3 and still be in good shape for the Ravens' Dec. 4 matchup with the Miami Dolphins.
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 won five titles in six appearances with the Poets at M&T Bank Stadium since taking over the program in 2007, likes the move.
He said he doesn't think players will be disappointed.
"M&T is too big. It will bring a great college atmosphere there," Smith said. "I don't know why it moved, but it should have been returned to a college. I always wanted it at Morgan [State] 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 the move is good for the players and for Navy.
"Anytime 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 MPSSAA's plan remains to play one state final game Thursday night, Dec. 1; one Friday night, Dec. 2; and two Saturday, Dec.3.
But 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 Dec. 2. Last year, because Navy lost to Houston in the final regular-season game, the Cougars hosted the conference championship.
Givens said his staff is preparing for both scenarios. If Navy hosts the AAC title game, the MPSSAA would have to move both Saturday games and almost certainly the Friday game, Givens said, because of the college teams' Friday walk-throughs and news conferences. It's possible all four games would have to be changed.
Warner said the games could move to a different site or be postponed until the following week at Navy. Other college fields the MPSSAA might use could be hosting football or soccer games, making a contingency plan hard to finalize.
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 Conference baseball championship was held at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, forcing state officials to move one baseball 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 backup plans."
M&T Bank Stadium will continue to host the City-Poly (Nov. 5) and Calvert Hall-Loyola (Nov. 24) rivalry football games, but they are not grouped together like the finals.
Four games in three days 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 offseason 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 firsthand what a run of high school football championship games 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 said that while it's possible the state championships could return to M&T Bank Stadium 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 to 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."