Eva Scott, Western High's athletic director, calls it "the culmination of years of hard work."
Mitch Tullai, football coach at St. Paul's and former athletic director at the school, calls it "the death knell" of the Maryland Scholastic Association.
This fall, Baltimore City's 16 public schools moved from the MSA to the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. Walter Amprey, the Baltimore schools superintendent, mandated the move to the MPSSAA earlier this year. The effects are already being felt.
* The girls teams at city public schools are on equal footing with boys teams for the first time. The MSA includes only boys teams, so girls teams in the city were left without an athletic organization. The MPSSAA offers postseason play in eight girls sports, including several not offered at city schools.
* For the first time, boys and girls teams in the city can compete in regional and state championships.
* The MPSSAA classifies schools by enrollment, so Dunbar will compete in the state's smallest category, Class 1A, even though its basketball team is one of the best in the nation. The MPSSAA also restricts travel: Dunbar, Western and other city basketball teams that once competed in national tournaments will have to stay closer to home.
* The MSA and MPSSAA also have different rules regarding eligibility and transfers. One case this fall highlighted those differences: Former Patterson quarterback Buddy Edmond had to transfer to a private school to play his senior season because he had used up his MPSSAA eligibility.
* City and Poly will play their traditional football game on Thanksgiving for the last time this year, and the Metro Classic basketball tournament is in jeopardy because of MPSSAA scheduling rules that differ from MSA regulations.
"The No. 1 priority in the move was the girls teams," said Mark Schlenoff, the athletic director at Poly and vice president of the MSA. "Girls teams that never had a chance in the past to compete in postseason tournaments will now have a shot to win a state title."
City girls teams have played in the City-Wide league, an informal group with no governing officers or bylaws. Before this year, the most recognition the league had gotten was the chance to play the Catholic League girls champion in basketball at the Baltimore Arena as part of the Metro Classic.
This week, the city sends its first representatives into MPSSAA postseason play: The Western and City College girls soccer teams have made the regional playoffs.
Scott, who is in her 35th year at Western, was involved in failed attempts by the city girls to join the state association in 1976 and the MSA in 1981.
"The girls programs have been in the background for a long time with no sense of direction; this gives them a sense of direction," said Derek Maki, who coached Patterson's girls basketball squad to a 14-7 record last year, and its softball team to a 10-6 record.
In boys sports, Schlenoff said Amprey has encouraged city public schools to continue their ties with the 74-year-old MSA, one of the country's oldest high school organizations. But Tullai says, "The state rules and philosophies differ [from the MSA], so we won't have the closeness and cohesiveness any more."
The change means that city schools likely will compete in separate leagues from the private and Catholic schools in team sports such as basketball, baseball and football. There will be no change in individual sports such as wrestling, track and field and tennis, except that city public school athletes now will be able to advance beyond MSA championships to regional and state meets.
Football and boys soccer teams in the city aren't eligible for the MPSSAA playoffs that start next week because their schedules, which were set before the merger, conflict with the playoffs.
Not a good fit for Dunbar
The move to the MPSSAA doesn't thrill Dunbar boys basketball coach Pete Pompey, who says it detracts from his program. The nation's top-ranked team a year ago, the Poets now will be playing in Class 1A, where enrollments are smallest.
Also, public schools are limited to 28 games, including a maximum of 20 regular-season games. Dunbar went 29-0 last season.
But the overall level of play and exposure are Pompey's major concerns.
"I don't think [the Class 1A state title] holds as much water as who we played against [last season]. Top-notch talent attracts top-notch college scouts," said Pompey. "For years we've played teams like [former Class 4A state titlist] Annapolis, and we always beat them pretty easily. Going against those [Class 1A] schools is going to be kind of anticlimactic."
In addition, excursions such as the one the Poets made to Hawaii last year are out of the question under MPSSAA rules, which limit road trips to 600 miles round trip.
"That deprives us of giving a lot of the city kids the opportunity to expose themselves to places they rarely, if ever, get to see," said Pompey.
Added Mike Bauer, in his 19th season as Joppatowne coach, "Let's face it, you can just give Dunbar the state championship trophy right now, and for the next couple of years, barring anything unforeseen."
Bauer's Mariners have made four trips to the state final four, winning back-to-back Class 1A titles in 1989-90 and 1990-91.
"In the long run, I think all of the public schools will benefit," said Bauer. "The unfairness is that Dunbar has its open enrollment program [in its health curriculum] in Baltimore City. So they'll continue to enjoy an advantage over schools like ours that can only draw from a smaller area."
Joining the point system
One of the biggest changes for city schools since joining the state association is the playoff system. In the MPSSAA, teams qualify for the regional playoffs by accumulating points during the regular season.
A victory over a Class 4A school earns eight points, a win over a 3A school is worth seven points, beating a 2A school draws six points, and a win over a 1A school earns five points.
With the exception of Calvert Hall and Mount St. Joseph, which are large enough to count as 4A schools, all MSA private schools have enrollments equivalent to 1A schools, so a victory over them is worth only five points. Thus the larger city public schools are less likely to schedule private schools.
"The MSA philosophy is based on the ability level of the team, not the size," said Schlenoff. "To maintain some relationships and traditions we had, the public schools have been urged to play as many non-league games as possible against the private and Catholic schools and schedule a championship game when possible. But even if a Baltimore City school had an undefeated team in the MSA, it might not make the playoffs."
City kicked upstairs?
The point system has led to at least one sticky situation in the 3A-4A girls soccer regional playoffs, where City and Western, of the City-Wide league, will make their first appearance this week.
City, which posted an 8-1 record to win the six-team conference, earned the top seed in Region I above second seed Dulaney, the defending regional champion, and third seed Perry Hall. City plays host to fourth seed Kenwood today at 3 p.m.
"City's first year into this and they get the top seed; our whole team thinks it's totally unfair," said Dulaney striker Aimee Vaughan. "City plays a much lower quality of teams than everyone else."
Dulaney, ranked second in the area, is 11-1. Its only loss was a 2-1 setback against defending Class 2A-1A state champion Hammond, the area's top-ranked team. Also, Dulaney and Perry Hall each beat Kenwood this season. But Kenwood appears to have gotten the best deal in the playoffs; it is a heavy favorite to beat City.
"This year was a little more troublesome fitting in the city schools," said C. Milton Wright coach Ken Dawson, Harford County's representative on the girls state soccer committee. "I sit on the committee that does that, and we did the best that we could."
With 2,827 career passing yards and 29 touchdowns, Edmond entered his senior season at Patterson as a returning All-Metro selection and a projected Division I quarterback prospect.
But on Aug. 31 -- just four days before the Clippers' first game of the season -- he learned that he was ineligible at Patterson under MPSSAA rules. He transferred to Mount St. Joseph three days later.
Edmond repeated his sophomore academic year at Patterson after he was wounded in a shooting incident and missed classes while he recuperated. He played one junior varsity and three varsity seasons at Patterson, and he believed he was still eligible to play this season under MSA rules, which permit an athlete to play up to four varsity seasons.
But city athletes came under the rules of the state association last June. MPSSAA rules state: "Students who participate in grade nine will have a maximum eligibility of four years."
"The difference between the MSA and [the MPSSAA] is that there's nothing in the state rules that distinguishes between a varsity and junior varsity season," said Ned Sparks, executive secretary of the MPSSAA.
The city schools' move to the MPSSAA has jeopardized events such as the annual Thanksgiving Day Poly-City football game and the season-ending Metro Classic girls basketball game.
The Classic, played at the Baltimore Arena, benefits the Fuel Fund, which for the last 10 years has raised money to help low-income families heat their homes.
Pete Connally, whose Walbrook team defeated St. Mary's in last year's Classic, serves on the committee to reorganize the event and keep it afloat.
"The state rules say we can't play games on Sunday. If it was as simple as moving the game to Saturday, we'd do it, but the arena's not available to us on that day," said Connally.
"We're at the point now where we're very concerned that [the Metro Classic] could disappear," Connally said.
The Poly-City football game will disappear from Thanksgiving Day after this season. The MPSSAA playoffs begin next week, and state rules won't allow teams to play a regular-season game after the playoffs begin.
"Next year, we'll probably play it during the last week before the playoffs, although we have no idea where," said City coach George Petrides, whose squad trails the series, 50-47. With NFL expansion on hold, it is uncertain how much longer Memorial Stadium will be around.
"As much as it is tradition, we're probably better off in this situation, playing for state titles," Petrides said.
Although the rivalry will continue, Petrides said it may never be the same.
"I'll miss getting up on Thanksgiving to get ready for a game," he said. "It's going to take some getting used to."