The sun shone brightly over Barbour Family Stadium on Wednesday, about half as bright as the smile new Severn football coach Demetrius Ballard wore as he spoke of the future.
The Admirals last won a game in 2019. This year, when Ballard looks to the horizon, he sees a new dawn approaching.
“There’s a lot more talent here than I thought might be when I came through the door. It’s not a rebuild. We have [lower] numbers, but we have a wealth of talent,” Ballard said.
A former Archbishop Spalding coach and longtime youth football coach, Ballard has built success. Parents and alumni pepper their new coach with excitement for a potential winning Severn team. As optimistic as he is, Ballard tries to ground their expectations.
Ballard realized there was an empty stomach for good football in the Severn community, something he hadn’t experienced at Spalding. And with it brought new challenges.
“There’s a huge buzz,” Ballard said. “It’s a different world here, as I’ve learned. There’s a big lacrosse culture.
Rather than fighting the established hierarchy, Ballard’s worked closely with lacrosse coach Joe Christie to recruit.
A first-team All-County lacrosse star, quarterback Jacob Todd and his teammates talked over the possibility of returning to football. Todd played his freshman year, his sophomore lost to COVID, but didn’t feel the draw his junior season.
The new coaching staff partially enticed Todd, now a senior, to return. But the response to those new coaches from the players was the true allure.
“A lot of the guys were bought into playing this year,” Todd said. “Before, it was like, ‘I don’t know, are you gonna play, are you not gonna play?’ Now, I knew a couple of lacrosse guys were really bought into playing this year, so we all came together to hopefully get some wins.”
Todd knows he’s not walking into an obvious playoff contender. That’s what he loves about it. It reminds him of his lacrosse team two years ago, when they were building the program from the ground up.
“Except that now, I’m a senior,” Todd said. “It’s just a different position, trying to lead, because we’re pretty young here. Instead of being the young guy that’s following all the seniors, I’m kind of leading the build of this program here. It’s cool.”
Rekindling that love for football is why Ballard wears his Anne Arundel Youth Football Association lanyard around his neck during practice: to remind them all, he said, of what he intends to turn Severn into.
“What worked well over there was concentrating in your own backyard,” he said. “Instead of looking for PG County kids, I just need to prove to the Green Hornet Severna Park kids, the Cape St. Claire kids, some Pasadena kids.”
Another one of Ballard’s tangible goals for the Admirals is to build numbers, which at a school as small as Severn is not easy. The most the program’s ever drawn, the coach said, is between 60 and 65. This year’s squad carries 51.
“Everyone told me I’d be at 35,” Ballard said, “so that’s pretty good.”
New Meade coach Tanardo Sharps had similar possibilities on his plate. Last year’s Mustangs, at times, dropped to numbers as low as the teens.
This was not the case on Thursday afternoon, the true first day of 2022 practice after severe thunderstorms canceled Wednesday’s sessions. On the field, 132 boys dressed in mostly white T-shirts brimmed the sidelines. They began to stream into the stadium 40 minutes before the start of practice. Another 20 or so kids dotted the stands while a dozen leaned against the concessions stand on the hill to watch. Those two groups didn’t make the cut; at some point, with overwhelming interest, Sharps had to stop letting kids sign up. And yet, the kids watching mostly wore white T-shirts, too, taking in even the earliest parts of practice with intense focus.
When Sharps made the call to cancel practice Wednesday, his phone flooded with pleas from his players who at that point had yet to start a single real practice: “Coach, we can practice in the rain.”
“It’s very validating to see that this is something they want, that they’re not being forced to do it, not their parents telling them to play — that it’s what they want,” Sharps said. “And it shows in their commitment.”
The new coach emphasizes Monday through Thursday more than Friday. He tells his players to “go 3-0″ those four days in the classroom, in the community and on the practice field.
There are other non-X-and-O things Sharps has instilled that he knows will have an impact in the long run. He’s established a meal plan for his players to maintain better nutrition. He enacted study hall to help secure players on their grades now.
It’s those kinds of things that brought senior Morgan Smith back. Though he played his freshman year, Smith hadn’t put on the black-and-silver uniform since.
“When I first got here, Meade treated me like family,” Smith said. “Most of my friends are here, family’s here. That made me want to come back and play for them. When I came back, it felt like this is what I wanted to do.”
Senior Kyree Scott did play last year. Scott suffered every loss and watched every injury unfold in football during his junior season. Now, he grins as he looks towards this fall.
“It feels great. My senior year, go out with a bang,” Scott said. “There’s a different energy.”
Sharps somewhat models his program after the New England Patriots’ standard of buying in, never sacrificing culture for talent. It’s why he surrounded himself with assistants whom he trusts on a personal level outside of football. Sharps worked to instill it through spring workouts and 7-on-7s this summer, where kids who hadn’t won a game in two years carried Meade to the championships of one of the tournaments.
“We’re not just going to give you anything you want. We’re going to give you opportunities; what you do with that opportunity is up to you,” Sharps said.
And already, the players have soaked that message in.
“I feel a lot of potential out there,” Smith said, looking at his 131 new teammates. “We’re going to be great this season.”
This year’s team is predominantly young with about 80 freshmen and sophomores making up the ranks on the field Thursday. But Sharps has made it clear to his coaches and players that they are not building for 2023, 2024 or 2025 only. As important as the long-distant future is, the next few months are just as important. Sharps wants his 16 seniors to hear that most of all — and they do.
“We got to set a tone for next season,” Scott said. “Keep building.”