Centennial junior Anthony Matthews talks about the Eagles program and the return of the varsity team. (Tim Schwartz / BSMG video)
New Centennial High School varsity football coach Billy Martin doesn’t like to harp on the past, and he was hired in February to make sure the program and his players don’t either.
The past is hard to forget for the Eagles, who disbanded their varsity football team last August just nine days after their first practice because a “lack of sufficient players and concern for student safety” made it a necessary decision, according to the Howard County Public School System.
Since last fall, the question of whether the Centennial varsity team would play in 2018 and beyond lingered until Wednesday afternoon, the first day of practices for Maryland high schools.
“I’m trying to instill in them that, you know, it’s a new start, a fresh beginning,” said Martin, who is entering his first year as a varsity head coach after seven years as a JV head coach and varsity assistant at Marriotts Ridge and Mt. Hebron. “Whatever happened in the past is over, it’s in the past and we don’t like talking about it. We don’t talk about it.”
By all accounts, the Eagles’ first day of practice was a success. Martin said he expected 45 players total this year between varsity and JV, and that’s about how many showed up on Day 1. Fewer than 20 players attended tryouts on the first day last year.
“I was obviously worried the whole time how many were actually going to show up when it was time, when it counted,” said Martin. “We got the turnout I expected. It’s enough. We’ll make it work.
“We have a good group. I couldn’t be more proud of these guys who are out here. The situation, it takes a lot for them to be out here. They’re used to hearing so much negativity but they’ve put that aside and are ready to get it going.”
Jeannie Prevosto, who replaced Jean Vanderpool on July 1 as the Athletics and Activities Manager at Centennial after 19 years at Mt. Hebron and Urbana, said she had no doubts that there would be a varsity team this fall. She knows Martin from her time at Mt. Hebron and believes he is the right man for the job because of his personality and work ethic.
She said she was in touch with Martin before her transfer became official to make sure the football team was staffed and there was sustained interest during summer workouts. All signs throughout the offseason were positive.
“He and I have been in constant communication,” she said. “I knew we were going to have [a varsity team] because of Billy. Kids gravitate toward him because he’s so positive. He cares. ... I had no doubt that we weren’t going to have one because I knew of what he did at Hebron. I had no worries or concerns whatsoever.”
John Davis, the Coordinator of Athletics at HCPSS, said the county hasn’t done anything special or different to make sure Centennial would have a varsity team this year. He said Martin and Prevosto, as well as several other school employees, did all the leg work to build interest.
Davis added that “it’s always the goal” to make sure every county high school has varsity teams for all sports but admitted “like it or not, everybody judges you on your football teams.”
“It’s great to see after what happened last year. It’s great to see it,” said Davis, who made an appearance Wednesday at Centennial. “I think coach Martin is going to have a great opportunity to build something. I’m happy to see some red, white and blue out there. It looks great. ... We’ve got a lot of great athletic teams, but boy, around the state [football is] the big thing that hits the papers most likely. So I’m happy to see all 12, and soon to be 13.”
Martin, meanwhile, said he has “no expectations” for this season. He’s taking it one day at a time.
“The first step was getting guys to show up and get one practice down,” he said, “and it looks like we’re going to accomplish that, and then we’ll see what’s in store for tomorrow.”
Elsewhere in Howard County, participation as strong at most schools, although several coaches noted they had fewer players come out than in year’s past. Howard had 100 athletes between varsity and JV tryouts and Atholton had 86. Glenelg, Hammond, Long Reach, Mt. Hebron, Marriotts Ridge, Oakland Mills, River Hill and Wilde Lake and had between 64 and 80 players.
According to an August 2017 news release from National Federation of High Schools, participation in 11-player football in 2016-17 dropped by more than 25,000 from the previous year, although the number of schools offering the sport increased by 52 schools. Overall, the decrease of participants amounted to fewer than two players per school.
“While we are concerned when any sport experiences a decline in participation, the numbers do not substantiate that schools are dropping the sport of football,” said Bob Gardner, NFHS executive director. “The NFHS and its member state high school associations have worked hard to reduce the risk of injury in high school football, and we are pleased at the continued strength of the sport across the country.”