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Howard County athletics voted to fix issues that have arisen regarding which football teams are eligible to win the county championship and which games count toward the league standings in an emergency meeting on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019.
Howard County athletics voted to fix issues that have arisen regarding which football teams are eligible to win the county championship and which games count toward the league standings in an emergency meeting on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. (File photo by Nanine Hartzenbusc / XX)

Howard County Coordinator of Athletics John Davis and the 12 Howard County Athletics and Activities Managers held an emergency meeting on Monday and voted to fix issues that have arisen regarding which football teams are eligible to win the county championship and which games count toward the league standings.

The league title for 2019 and 2020 will be awarded to the team with the fewest losses to county opponents. In the event there are two teams with the same number of losses, the head-to-head result will be the tiebreaker. If those teams did not play each other, both will be named county champion. If there are three or more teams that finish with the same number of losses, they will each be named county champion.

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Centennial is the only team ineligible to win a county championship based on the number of league games it plays.

The meeting also led to the decision that any games played between two county schools count toward their respective league records. There was confusion among the AAMs whether Week 1 games would count toward the league standings, as the county-provided schedule was set for Weeks 2-9 with the original understanding being that Week 1 games were left open for teams to find their own opponent.

Eleven of the 12 AAMs voted to approve the immediate changes.

“This seems to be the best scenario to handle a crazy situation for two years,” Davis said.

The decisions made on Monday go against the provisions originally laid out by the AAMs who created the county schedule in January and the terms set forth in regards to determining a county football champion. It also goes against what is written in the Howard County Athletics handbook in regards to winning percentage against county schools determining the county champion, though Davis said any decisions made Monday will become precedent for football and that revisions to the handbook will begin in February.

Centennial football defeated Mt. Hebron, 41-26, on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.

The clarifications made Monday give Marriotts Ridge (5-1 county record as of Monday) and Hammond (3-1) an opportunity to win or share the county championship, something they were not considered eligible for when the county schedule was set to fit a nine-game regular season.

It also affects the current league standings. The Mustangs, who lost to Glenelg Week 1, and Oakland Mills (5-2), which lost to Hammond that week, now have an additional county loss even though those games were not on the league-provided schedule.

It opens up the possibility that with two weeks left in the regular season this year’s county championship could be shared by three or four teams, including Marriotts Ridge, Hammond, River Hill (6-1) and Glenelg (3-1). Oakland Mills is also still in the mix.

“Bottom line is, if we’re looking through the lens of equity, which superintendent [Michael J. Martirano] wants, this is the best outcome for the most people,” Davis said. “I think they understand that, and I understand that.”

Making the schedule

Howard County AAMs met multiple times over the course of several months in 2018 and 2019 to discuss possible scenarios for a nine- and 10-week football schedule. When the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association began to narrow in on a nine-game schedule and a change to the expanded playoff format, the AAMs’ discussions ramped up, and in spring 2019 they were tasked with creating an official Howard County football schedule. The MPSSAA officially approved the changes in April.

The AAMs, in conjunction with the opinion of several coaches, agreed it would be a good opportunity to play teams outside of Howard County for the first time. Davis and the AAMs met multiple times to discuss the new county schedule, and River Hill AAM Brandon Lauer and former Howard AAM Michael Duffy were tasked with creating it. The alterations to the schedule were proposed to the AAMs in late January and were set for 2019 and 2020.

“We were trying to provide teams the opportunity to play more competitive games,” said Lauer. “... [Coaches] absolutely, unequivocally wanted to try to play and open up the schedule and have the opportunity to play other teams.”

In addition to the obvious change from 10 to nine games, several other factors were in play.

Centennial, which disbanded its football team in 2017 and struggled to keep its team together in 2018, requested to be independent with the goal of re-establishing its program and playing worse competition.

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Howard, as the only Class 4A team in the state that did not play another 4A opponent, also requested an opportunity to play equal competition to better its chances at gaining playoff points.

Hammond, which had won four games the last three years, was looped into a similar arrangement, while Glenelg, last year’s county champion, was too.

Marriotts Ridge football defeated Hammond, 14-12, on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.

Ultimately, Howard, Hammond and Glenelg were given four open dates in the first four weeks of the season; Centennial received seven.

That left eight teams in the middle — Atholton, Long Reach, Marriotts Ridge, Mt. Hebron, Oakland Mills, Reservoir and Wilde Lake — to be split in half and grouped together based on records over the previous two seasons.

The AAMs decided that the top group of Long Reach, Oakland Mills, River Hill and Wilde Lake — in addition to Howard and Glenelg — would play each other the last five weeks of the regular season to create excitement for the county championship race down the stretch.

The bottom group of Atholton, Marriotts Ridge, Mt. Hebron and Reservoir — along with Centennial and Hammond — play each other those same weeks.

The two groups also played “cross-over” games, which meant a team in the top group playing against a team in the bottom group, in Weeks 2, 3 and 4.

“The way the schedule was built, I think it was good for everybody,” Hammond AAM Mike Lerner said. “Everybody has benefitted from this. Howard gets to play more 4As, Centennial got to pick their schedule, Hammond got to be able to play three out-of-conference games. I’ve enjoyed that, and I think our kids have enjoyed that as well.”

The county schedule Lauer and Duffy created did not include Week 1. The understanding, according to them, was that it was an open date, meaning teams were left to find their own games that week.

Some teams, like Glenelg and River Hill, struggled to find opponents and eventually scheduled league opponents. Glenelg played Marriotts Ridge, while River Hill played Atholton Week 1.

“It is not as easy as it looks to get games,” Lauer said.

“Brandon [Lauer] and Michael [Duffy] did a great job,” Davis said. “Most of them understood how it was put together; most of them didn’t understand the implications of it, and that’s what it came down to and that was the discussion.”

Open date confusion

Several AAMs said their understanding was with Week 1 being an open date, those games don’t count toward the league standings regardless of who the opponent was.

“We gave the choice to play whomever anyone wanted. Some selected Howard County schools, others didn’t,” Lauer said. “They didn’t have choice in Weeks 2 through 9. Those [county] games were locked in with the county-provided schedule, with the exception of Howard, Glenelg, Centennial and Hammond, which were given more open dates.”

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Six county teams played each other in Week 1: River Hill beat Atholton; Glenelg beat Marriotts Ridge; and Hammond beat Oakland Mills.

Lauer said it was made clear during meetings between the AAMs that any games between two county teams played in Week 1 would not count toward the official league record.

Duffy, who is now the Coordinator of Athletics for Carroll County, agreed.

River Hill football took down rival Glenelg, 14-10, in Clarksville on Oct. 18, 2019 to improve to 6-1.

“One hundred percent because we did not schedule a Week 1 for anybody, so it was open to everybody however they wished to fill it,” he said. “If they chose to fill it (with a county opponent), it was a non-league game.”

Marriotts Ridge AAM Chris Reagle said Oct. 16, “My understanding is that Week 1 is an open date that was not part of the county-provided schedule,” and that the Mustangs’ loss to Glenelg did not count toward the league record.

Lerner, however, remembers it differently.

“Yes, it’s an open date in that you had the opportunity to schedule a non-league opponent or, if you could pick up someone from Howard County, whichever was easier. That was your option,” he said.

Whether the game counted toward the league record is something “I don’t remember being talked about one way or another,” Lerner said. “It may have been, I just don’t remember it. My thought process is this: I don’t know of any sport at any level where if you play a league opponent where it’s not counted as a league game.”

County championship eligibility

With teams playing a different number of county games for the first time, Lauer and Duffy said it was necessary to change how a league champion is crowned.

The inequality in each team’s schedule made this a difficult decision.

“Based on the way that we developed the schedule,” Lauer said, “we had teams that were eligible to win it, and other teams [that] were not.”

Ultimately, Lauer and Duffy said, it was decided that the bottom six teams — Atholton, Centennial, Hammond, Marriotts Ridge, Mt. Hebron and Reservoir — were ineligible for the county championship. Only the top group, which consists of the six teams with the best records from the year before, were.

Lauer, who said he and Duffy discussed the intricacies of the schedule they built with the AAMs and that discussions about eligibility took place over the course of several gatherings, noted the “rules of engagement for 2019 and 2020” were clearly stated in those meetings.

“The way we sat down and explained it in our AAM meeting was that in order to get some flexibility within the schedule, that during the two-year program, the top-six teams would be eligible for the county championship and the bottom [six] would not,” Duffy said. “However, in place they would have more flexibility and have a better opportunity at playoff seeding.”

The reasoning was because many of the bottom-group teams don’t play many of the top-group teams.

For example, Hammond does not have Glenelg, Howard, River Hill, Wilde Lake or Oakland Mills on its county-provided schedule, while Marriotts Ridge did not have Howard, Oakland Mills or Glenelg scheduled in January. The Golden Bears beat Oakland Mills and the Mustangs lost to Glenelg on the open date.

“We had to acknowledge the fact that their provided schedules did not include the top six teams from the county [last year],” Lauer said.

Take a look at the Howard County football statistical leaders for the 2019 season.

The top group, meanwhile, played the tougher competition. Wilde Lake, for example, plays River Hill, Howard, Long Reach, Glenelg and Oakland Mills. The Wildecats don’t play Centennial, Hammond or Reservoir. Howard’s and Glenelg’s county-provided schedule includes only the five teams in the top group.

Some AAMs remember the conversation about county-championship eligibility differently.

“Whether or not we were eligible to win a county championship or not, I don’t remember whether that was discussed or not,” Lerner said.

Reagle said “it gets a little confusing,” regarding which teams were eligible.

“The bottom two teams — Hammond and Centennial — my understanding is that they were not eligible for a county championship,” he added.

Reservoir coach Bryan Cole said the AAMs “didn’t put anything official out” or put anything on paper about which teams would be eligible and which teams would not be. He says he was never told that his team would be ineligible to win a county championship.

Reagle said the confusion has been caused by “teams like Marriotts Ridge and Hammond” vastly improving from last season.

“We never thought that some of the lower-tier teams, if you want to call it a tier, were going to end up potentially running the table," he said. "... It kind of bit us in the butt looking back that we just didn’t take some things into consideration. We ended up in a year where there is so much parity, it’s really thrown everything for a loop. And that’s kind of the unfair thing we have now. ... We weren’t thinking about titles; we were trying to think about the greater good and trying to help out some of the other schools.”

The changes made Monday overrule those made in January.

Lerner said the decisions made during Monday morning’s meeting at River Hill are “about as fair as they could possibly be."

"Ultimately, we want it to be decided on the field and it’s just an imperfect system … and unfortunately it’s not always going to work out like that,” he added. “But I do think the schedule was the right thing to do for the greater good and the growth of football in Howard County.”

Lerner added that deciding to use number of losses as the determining factor is “probably the lesser of all the evils, and that’s as close as we can get to having it decided on the field. It’s imperfect, without a doubt.”

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