The River Hill football team has become accustomed to being regarded as the best team in the metro area.
The past two seasons, the Hawks finished the season ranked No. 1 in the The Baltimore Sun's poll. But when this season's preseason poll came out, the defending Class 2A state champions were ranked No. 2, behind two-time reigning 1A champion Dunbar.
"I think this year, we weren't ranked No. 1, and that really motivated us to get back that No. 1 ranking that we've had the last two years," said River Hill senior tailback Michael Campanaro, whose team took over the top ranking after Dunbar lost its season opener. "It motivated us to go out there and show that we could be better than last year's team."
Rankings at the college and high school levels have generated interest and debate for years. Because there are multiple classifications in the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association and private schools have their own league championships, there are a number of champions crowned every season. However, there can be only one No. 1 team in each sport.
So how much stock do area high school players and coaches put into newspaper rankings?
"I think the kids read the newspaper and the public reads the newspapers to look at the rankings," said McDonogh boys soccer coach Steve Nichols, whose team was ranked No. 1 all last season and began this season No. 1 before losing to Perry Hall.
"I think they are valuable. A lot of people in the community, that's how they justify who the best team in the area is."
Maurice Boylan Jr., who coaches the top-ranked McDonogh girls soccer team, said: "I think the polls give the fans something to talk about on the forums and the talk shows and the newspapers. Polls are news. It gives people the opportunity to express their opinion, and I think they're kind of conversation pieces more than anything."
Still, some believe that because the rankings are based largely on opinion, it's difficult to say which team is truly the best in the metro area. For example, a hot topic on high school sports message boards is whether River Hill or No. 2 Loyola should be ranked No. 1 in football.
River Hill (5-0), a Howard County public school, has outscored its opponents 264-22 (an average margin of victory of 48.4 points). Loyola (6-0), a private school that plays in the tough Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference, has outscored its opponents 281-35 (an average margin of victory of 41).
The Dons, however, say they aren't concerned with rankings.
"We never even talk about it," Loyola coach Brian Abbott said. "It's irrelevant in football. In track or swimming, where you have times, then you can rank people that don't compete against each other. The rankings just create buzz. I guess that's the good part for high school football, is it gets a lot of people talking."
Added Loyola senior linebacker Charley Jones: "The ratings don't really matter to us because we're not ever going to play River Hill or half the other teams that are ranked up there with us. We're just trying to go undefeated and win every game."
Along with the prestige of being No. 1, teams have to deal with having a target on their backs each week.
The Dunbar football team started the season as the top-ranked team but fell to Gwynn Park of Prince George's County, 33-32, in its season opener. The No. 1 ranking, mixed with having high-profile players such as state touchdown and rushing-yardage record holder Tavon Austin, might have had a negative effect on the team, Poets coach Lawrence Smith said.
"The rankings played a piece, but when you deal with high school kids, they're not used to dealing with press and publicity," Smith said. "You get more and more teams that will gun for you. For our program, we've been successful, but with this year, with all the press and publicity, every game's our Super Bowl. Everyone's going to play their best game, and the kids are finally realizing it."
There is still a long season ahead and a lot more to be decided as far as the rankings go. For the Hawks, their main focus is being ranked No. 1 at the end of the season for a third straight year.
"We're not trying to get caught up in the rankings now because we have the state rankings and some of these national rankings that we're getting recognition - which is great - but we're not talking about it as a team," River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen said. "The thing that we're worried about is the final rankings, and it's been great the last two years, after the season's over, to kind of sit back and look and say, 'All right, we're No. 1 in the Baltimore area.' That's when we want to be playing our best football, at the end of the year."
And even though the rankings are based largely on opinion - such as last season, when No. 1 River Hill and No. 2 Dunbar both went undefeated and won state titles - Hawks players believe the poll has been fairly accurate.
"In the end-of-the-year rankings, if the polls say we're No. 1, that's someone's opinion," Campanaro said, "but I definitely feel like they've had the poll right the last two years."