St. Mary's coach Brad Best said he "raised some eyebrows" by moving his Saints to the Maryland Scholastic Association's A Conference from the disbanded C Conference this year.
Best, who scheduled preseason scrimmages against No. 6 Patterson, No. 7 Annapolis and No. 11 Southern-AA, said "we wanted to challenge ourselves and get our program up to where it's considered among the best in the state."
And if yesterday's 10-7 victory over No. 12 St. Paul's is any indication, his visiting Saints (5-2) may have arrived.
Mark Kiefer's 27-yard field goal with 1:30 left ended a defensive battle in which the Saints forced six turnovers. Kiefer's field goal was the only scoring in the second half.
The fifth turnover -- a fumble recovery by Winston McKenna at the Crusaders' 24 -- set the stage for Kiefer seven plays later.
"That's what we were thinking -- field goal," said Kiefer, who is 6-for-9, with his longest field goal a 44-yarder. "This couldn't come against a better team. It's the biggest game of our season."
Six seconds later, however, St. Mary's Chris Berrier (95 yards, 17 carries) returned the ensuing kickoff 72 yards to the Saints' 28.
Five plays later, McKenna hit quarterback Tucker Radebaugh and forced a fumble, which teammate Justin Kiernan recovered at the 17 with 30 seconds left. The Saints ran out the clock.
The victory was the latest in a string of tough games for St. Mary's, including last week's 7-0 victory over Mount St. Joseph and losses to No. 3 Gilman, 18-16, and No. 4 McDonogh, 14-10.
"Against McDonogh and Gilman we're playing two of the top teams in the state and we had 10 turnovers," said Best. "I said, 'Cut down on those, guys, and we're looking at a good team here.' "
The Crusaders (6-2), winners of four straight C titles before a reorganization landed them in the B Conference this year, can attest to that.
"They had fire in their eyes and came out looking possessed," said Bean, who recovered a fumble and had two sacks for minus-19 yards. "I think we might have come in thinking too highly about being ranked."
The Saints led, 7-0, 10:44 into the second period. Brad Davis capped a 10-play, 79-yard drive by connecting on passes of 13, 6 and 38 yards. He found Matt Murphy at the 10, who sprinted in untouched to score, followed by Kiefer's extra-point kick.
Saints running back Jason Lilly (17 carries, 43 yards) entered the game with 567 yards, but was held to zero in the first half. The Crusaders' defense also set up their lone touchdown -- Berrier's 3-yard run 1:02 before halftime -- after Berrier' block of Keifer's punt and Bean's recovery at the Saints' 1.
The Crusaders faced third-and-goal at the 6 before a pass-interference call in the end zone against St. Mary's Brian Wuest -- who bumped Brian Reese -- put the ball on the 3.
St. Paul's had outscored its previous opponents, 230-14, with five shutouts, but played its third straight game without star running back John Solter (802 yards, 11 touchdowns). Solter was the area's top rusher when he suffered a season-ending broken leg injury against Northeast.
St. Mary's defensive coordinator Mike Codd said linebacker Joe Keenan (12 tackles) "was all over the field."
Codd also credited Winston McKenna, Justin Kiernan and Josh Rudder -- each with a fumble recovery -- and defensive backs Jim Brown (two interceptions) and Matt Clune (one interception).
"You've got to give them credit -- they weren't just arm-tackling," said Berrier, who has 601 yards and eight touchdowns this year. "Their defensive line had a good rush that caused havoc in the backfield all game."