Sophomore quarterback Malik Washington heard the murmurs: Archbishop Spalding wasn’t going to be good. It graduated too many people. It lost its chance.
Washington never believed it. The rest of the team never believed it.
They proved everyone wrong, from August to a freezing Friday in November. Screaming, dumping water on coach Kyle Schmitt and surrounded by hundreds of classmates, they celebrated the first Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference title in program history after a 34-10 win over Calvert Hall.
“Everybody said we’re not going to be nobody. It fueled our fire,” Washington said. “They had us last in the conference, and now, we done won the whole conference. All we needed was us. Just a team.”
It seemed impossible to consider, as the boys from Spalding hoisted the Mike Whittles Trophy — named after their own late beloved coach who died from cancer in 2012. But this would really be the first time Whittles’ trophy was coming home.
Schmitt thought about those he and the program lost, those who built the program from a B Conference team to the A, as well as the joyful kids running up and down the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium field with the hardware.
“Whittles’ family has been nothing but supportive to me from the start,” Schmitt said. “We lost a couple of coaches these past few years, guys who helped you build it. That’s what you think about.”
Running back Hakim Simms, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, smiled when he considered the reception he and his teammates would be coming back to at school on Monday. That they’d be proud of him.
He and his fellow seniors trudged through a middle-of-the-road 2019, a too-short 2020 and a heartbreaking 2021. He, Dillon Jones, PJ Poknis, Damien Wilburn, Gio Boone, Max Moss and so on, they’d anchored this group, supporting their quarterback.
“It feels long overdue,” Moss said. “We came out, worked every day and we made it happen. We weren’t gonna let anyone take it from us.”
As they partied, Schmitt could see in a picture just what made this year’s squad special enough to finally win it all. They were together, a homegrown team with just one transfer. It was as simple as that.
“It goes back to leadership and character,” Schmitt said. “It was a complete team, really balanced. There were no cliques. Seeing them together is the best part. It’s bittersweet because I told them this is their last couple hours together, but we’re going to celebrate now.”
Four times Calvert Hall started in Spalding territory. It didn’t score on its first attempt because sophomore Jayden Shipps picked off quarterback Noah Brannock. It didn’t score on its second or fourth because the whole Spalding defense swallowed up Brannock in the backfield.
Schmitt credits this to defensive coordinator Tyrone Forby. The team overhauled its defense through the pandemic into a unit consistently pounding opposing teams into submission. Friday was no different.
“We know offense is gonna score. Our job is to make it better for them,” Wilburn said. “They start off slow, it’s a family. We got [their] back.”
On its third drive, down a score, Calvert Hall drove to the Spalding 12. The best the Cardinals could manage was a 23-yard field goal by senior kicker Dylan Manna to get within 7-3.
But the Spalding offense that had cleaved so freely through the Cardinals’ defense to score first suddenly found itself gummed up over and over again.
The Cavaliers’ offense had been struck immobile one year ago against McDonogh. It could not, would not let that happen again — but it needed a spark.
Simms happily obliged.
“I ran out the middle, see the open hole,” Simms said. “I just had to take it to the crib.”
The running back split from Cardinals pursuers around the 30. By the 40, he’d truly left them behind en route to an 86-yard touchdown.
“Keemy breaks off, that got the juices flowing and all that good stuff,” Washington said.
It was the lightning in the night they needed, for soon, Spalding’s offense fell dark again. The Cavaliers turned the ball over on downs, recovered a fumble and turned it over again.
The Cardinals nearly made them pay. Brannock flung a 40-yard pass right to Donnie Lewis in the end zone, but Tyler Brown met it first.
The Spalding junior dove backwards, hitting the navy-and-gold end zone with the interception in hand.
Calvert Hall could not catch a break with Spalding’s defense, to the point that it became an inherently dangerous thing to try a pass. After Simms ran in an opening third-quarter score for a 21-3 Spalding lead, Brannock steered his Cardinals somewhat successfully to the 30, only for Poknis to pick him off and thunder into to the end zone.
Washington couldn’t close the season without hitting his favorite receiver one last time.
Moss ran to the corner of the end zone, 32 yards away. He met Washington’s touchdown pass like an old friend.
“It meant the world,” Moss said. “It was the perfect ending to an era.”
Something else made Friday’s win special, and not just for Spalding.
“I think it’s awesome for the county,” Schmitt said. “This county has been overlooked a lot, football-wise. We got a really nice little thing going down here.”