Putting final football pieces together labor of love


AT SOME POINT over the three days that the state public school football finals are staged at M&T; Bank Stadium, one of the participants may get a look at himself on the giant screen or take a moment to reflect on the grandeur of the surroundings.

And it will be during those moments when all the plotting and planning that state football chairman John H. Cox has done will pay off handsomely.

"This is a very top-rate operation and a great experience," said Cox. "It's just first class, and we think, for our kids, if they reach that level and that point, you should do the very best you can. With no discredit to anyone else, it's just been a great site for us."

Cox, by day the assistant superintendent of instruction in Charles County, volunteers his services to the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. He not only coordinates this weekend's four championship games, but is the caretaker of the brackets that get the teams here.

One of Cox's schools, Lackey, is in the 3A final tonight, meeting Northwest of Montgomery County, but you get the sense that Cox would take on the responsibility of handling the logistics of the tournament even if the Chargers weren't there, such is his passion for the game.

This year's finals promise to be among the more challenging to administer, given all that will be going on. Cox and MPSSAA officials will not only have to stage four games over three days, but do so around Sunday's Ravens-Cincinnati Bengals game.

NFL rules require that the visiting team have access to its locker room at least 24 hours before kickoff, which means Cox and the MPSSAA staff will have to maneuver adroitly to get everything accomplished.

Their ability to juggle will be especially taxed tomorrow when the 2A title game between Hereford and Potomac will kick off at 11 a.m., with the 1A game between Dunbar and defending champion Joppatowne scheduled for 4 p.m.

While some fans have grumbled about the MPSSAA scheduling the Hereford-Potomac game first, what with Potomac fans having to come to Baltimore from Prince George's County at an early hour, Cox said the move was made out of necessity.

The two 2A teams, Cox said, have considerably larger rosters than do Dunbar and Joppatowne, and since the locker room that the Bengals will use will be off limits after 1 p.m., officials made the call to have the 2A title game first, so that one of the teams can use Cincinnati's quarters before the Bengals arrive.

"We didn't have any other choice," said Cox, adding that since none of the four schools playing tomorrow is located more than an hour from the stadium, the hassle shouldn't be that great.

In a perfect world, these games would take place at Byrd Stadium on the University of Maryland campus, where the finals were held for years. After all, College Park is more centrally located, especially for the Washington-area schools, which have come to dominate the state playoffs, particularly in the 3A and 4A groupings.

And, for some coaches, the Maryland setting is more intimate and realistic for a high school crowd, which, in a best-case scenario for any of the four games will hit 20,000.

That figure will be dwarfed at the Ravens' 70,000-seat ballyard compared to the 50,000-seat capacity at Byrd, and fans will hardly be permitted to linger with their teams after the trophies are presented in the big city, as they were allowed to do in the college town.

The finals might still have been in College Park if Maryland hadn't switched a 2002 game against Wake Forest to the weekend of the finals that year. Once Cox discovered the conflict that year, he called MPSSAA executive secretary Ned Sparks and set out to find a new home.

Maryland Stadium Authority officials and the Ravens willingly made the NFL stadium available that year, and the next two, and the rest is history. The high schools had to make some concessions, namely charging fans accustomed, in many cases, to seeing their teams play for free, both an admission fee and a parking fee.

But the benefits, in Cox's mind, far outweigh the negatives. For instance, the stadium's artificial turf allows the MPSSAA to have four games on the same field without much of a change in the consistency of the surface, something that could not be said at Byrd Stadium, where the field is natural grass.

The merits of playing at M&T; were apparent big time last year when a wintry mix fell during the weekend the finals were scheduled. The games were rescheduled for the next week, but the heated field kept its consistency, and MSA officials helped the schools by making sure that the stands were shoveled out for fans' comfort.

Oddly enough, if not for the weather last year, the state finals would have taken place during the same weekend as a Ravens-Bengals game.

"But we were prepared to deal with that," said Cox.

The marriage between the stadium and the MPSSAA is year-to-year, but shows all the signs of being a long and happy one.

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