No amount of practice or conditioning could have prepared running back Rob Utz for the emotional blow he and the rest of the Loyola High football family absorbed two months ago.
In the weeks since teammate Van Brooks suffered a spinal cord injury in a game against Georgetown Prep, however, Utz said the Dons have at least come to terms with the ordeal.
"I think definitely we've bonded as a team, because if we didn't our season would have turned downhill," Utz said. "We had to come together and say, 'Look, this is what happened, but we have to be strong together, be strong for Van and continue our season.'"
With Brooks still recovering in the hospital, No. 3 Loyola will do just that today, facing archrival Calvert Hall in the annual Turkey Bowl, a Thanksgiving Day tradition at M&T; Bank Stadium.
Loyola leads the all-time series 43-33-8, including last year's nail-biter. Playing before a series-record crowd of nearly 15,000, underdog Calvert Hall stayed in contention until near the end - Dons linebacker Larry Strickland recovered a fumbled snap in the end zone with less than two minutes to play to give Loyola a 14-7 win.
This year, the Dons (9-1) hope to avoid such drama.
"It's very important getting off to a good start," Utz said. "We'd love to put up a lot of points early so we don't have to come from behind. We don't want to keep them in the game to the point where they think they can get the victory."
Loyola's Brady Smith, who earlier this season moved from quarterback to running back following an ankle injury, has run for 575 yards at a clip of nearly 6 yards per carry. He also splits time under center with junior Joe Lennon, and the two have completed nearly 55 percent of their passes for a total of more than 1,100 yards, helping the Dons score an average of 26 points a game.
Despite their 3-7 record, however, the Cardinals are anything but pushovers.
Senior Mike Newton, who ran for 147 yards in last year's game, is being recruited as a defensive back by colleges such as Buffalo and William and Mary. Junior all-conference quarterback Andrew Robinson has a Division I arm, and at 6 feet 3, 220 pounds also is hard to bring down.
"We're the best 3-7 team in the state of Maryland," said Calvert Hall coach Jay Robinson, whose team lost by less than a touchdown to both Class 3A state semifinalist Douglass of Prince George's County and Gwynn Park, which was 11-0 before falling to Douglass in the playoffs.
"You throw out the records," Robinson said. "Both teams are going to play with a lot of emotion. Both teams are going to be well-prepared. Whoever makes the least number of mistakes will have the best chance to win."
Before last year, Calvert Hall had won three straight in the series, but the Cardinals enter this game following consecutive losses to Gwynn Park, Gilman and Valley Forge (Pa.). To break that streak, they will have to eliminate the turnovers that have beset them all season.
Matchup: Calvert Hall (3-7) vs. No. 3 Loyola (9-1)
Site: M&T; Bank Stadium
When: Today, 10 a.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 2/WJFK (1300 AM)
Series: Loyola leads 43-33-8