People laughed three years ago when St. Mary's High in Annapolis (220 boys in an enrollment of 550) jumped into the Maryland Scholastic Association A Conference for football.
Even the players were not convinced that the suggestion to step up in competition by coach Brad Best was the right thing to do. After all, the Saints had only enjoyed mild success in the MSA C Conference with a tri-championship in 1990 (8-2, shared with Severn and St. Paul's).
The Saints (7-3, 4-1) got the last laugh Saturday when their 21-13 victory over Calvert Hall (3-6, 1-3) coupled with (9-1, 4-1) Mount St. Joseph's 37-21 loss to Loyola (5-4, 3-1) gave St. Mary's a share of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association, formerly the MSA, A Conference championship.
"Teams in Baltimore don't respect us at all, and we've got the same reputation down here [Anne Arundel County]," said Best, who is 45-25 (.643) in seven seasons with the Saints.
"It took awhile to convince the kids that they could compete at the A Conference level, but now they know playing better competition can only make you better."
The Saints were 3-7 in the first season under Best, but went 23-7 overall the next three years, including an 8-2 campaign while playing in the B Conference in 1992.
In the big step up in '93, the Saints were 7-3 overall, but only 2-3 in the conference. Last year they slipped to 1-4 in league action and 5-5 overall, the only A Conference victory by 39-20 over Calvert Hall (2-8, 0-5).
With a seasoned team that he says was "our most athletic," the 1995 Saints made history. St. Mary's became the first football team from Anne Arundel County in 65 years to win an A Conference title.
Severn last did it in 1930 under head coach Bill Hoover with the legendary Paul Brown as his offensive coordinator. The Admirals were 7-0 that season for their third straight A Conference state championship as it was called -- 1928 (7-1) and 1929 (9-0).
St. Mary's accomplished the feat by bouncing back from two straight losses to Severn (15-14) and Mount St. Joseph (26-12), to knock off Loyola, 15-6.
The Saints' main offensive weapon, junior running back Rashi Reed twisted his knee late in the Severn game and was unable to play the next week against St. Joe.
Reed, who had 113 yards and three touchdowns rushing in the win over Calvert Hall, finished the season with 1,133 yards and 12 touchdowns. He came back against Loyola, and, while he didn't score, contributed to what Best called "our best game of the year."
The Saints defensive unit, led by defensive ends Jim Hardesty (two interceptions) and Brian Kingsbury and linebackers Josh Rudder and Monte Graves, held the Dons to three first downs, 54 yards rushing and 100 yards passing.
"After looking at the Severn film, our kids were pretty upset and that turned things around," said Best.
An 18-6 loss to City followed Loyola, but did not hurt the Saints' confidence as they rebounded to win their final four over Poly (19-6), McDonogh (35-12), Gilman (14-0) and Calvert Hall.
St. Mary's outscored its opponents 196-96 in 10 games, the only county team to give up fewer than 100 points.
Best credits the support of the administration (principal Phyllis McNally and vice principal Jim Moorhead) and student body, his coaching staff and the players' dedication for their success.
"This is a tight-knit school, with the other teams coming out to cheer for each other," said Best, a former college assistant at Shippensburg State and New Mexico State.
The coaching staff includes Mike Codd (offense), Hank Gareis (backs and linebackers), Dave Lombardi (defense), O.T. Campbell (linemen), and JV coaches, Vince DePasquale, Tony Pagliaro and Pat Meher.