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Preston: No sympathy for the MIAA schools complaining about St. Frances

Instead of criticizing St. Frances for its recent football success, schools in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association should work harder to try to keep pace.

Mount Saint Joseph and Calvert Hall this week became the second and third teams to decide not to play the Panthers this fall, citing safety concerns and other perceived differences in their programs.

Neither Mount Saint Joseph nor Calvert Hall will get any sympathy here.

St. Frances apparently has violated no rules in becoming a national power, and it appears racism is part of the motivation behind these schools not being willing to play the Panthers.

“Absolutely, and I’m not going to shy away from it,” said Dr. Curtis Turner, principal at St. Frances since 2008. “No one wants to talk about it directly. We’re the oldest Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the only difference between us and the other Catholic schools is the social economic demographic.”

St. Frances is predominantly black, and the majority of the students live at or below the poverty line. Back in 2013, 2014 and 2015, when the Panthers were 3-3, 4-2, and 0-6 in the A Conference, no one complained about playing the Panthers, maybe one of the worst high school teams in Baltimore history.

But two years ago, Turner hired former Gilman coach Biff Poggi to take over the program and St. Frances has become one of the top teams in the country. The Panthers just don’t win, they dominate and were ranked as high as No. 4 nationally last season.

And now there are complaints. Critics want to say the Panthers recruit players from other states. They say they steal players from other teams. They say St. Frances players have been playing longer than the allotted four years.

Where is the proof?

Until then, the innuendo needs to stop and St. Frances’ competitors need to work harder. Private schools have been recruiting players from Baltimore, Carroll, Anne Arundel, Howard and Harford County public schools for decades, so it’s hard to feel compassion for them.

It seems almost standard practice for parents of athletes in private schools to hold their children back a year in grade school so they have a better chance of getting a scholarship as a senior. St. Frances is doing what its competitors have been doing for years, but now the Panthers are winning.

They have become like Alabama in college football and the Golden State Warriors in the NBA. But instead of pointing fingers, rival schools should look in the mirror. They should recruit better athletes and hire better coaches. Maybe they should spend more time in the weight or film rooms.

But this complaining about an unfair advantage needs to stop. In 1984, Poly was unbeaten and unscored on for the entire season. No one complained. No team refused to play McDonogh’s girls lacrosse team recently, even though the Eagles won 198 straight games.

There is a sense of entitlement at these private schools. I’ve known Poggi and a lot of his coaches for more than 20 years. They are competitors and want to win, but this staff has a sense of purpose. The coaches believe in giving players second chances and trying to turn them into men.

They aren’t just about winning. According to Turner, every senior football player under Poggi has graduated. He said 12 of the players on the current roster are legally classified as homeless, coming from as far south as Richmond, Va., and as far north as Philadelphia.

“People just think we’re going out bringing in ringers or whatever,” Turner said. “They have distressed areas in Richmond and Philadelphia, but they don’t have a St. Frances Academy nearby.”

According to Turner, St. Frances can house 40 students.

The program is much more than about football. It’s about all those things we have said sports build, such as character and discipline. But sometimes we get so carried away about what is on the surface that we don’t see what is going on underneath.

I believe in second chances. I believe in taking kids off the streets. It’s good to provide students who have struggled with tutors, and to put them into housing. Playing football might be their only opportunity to succeed.

The athletic directors at McDonogh, Archbishop Spalding and Gilman said they have not decided whether to keep St. Frances on their 2018 schedules. Regardless, Turner said St. Frances will still play a full schedule of games even though the Panthers might have to find new opponents in June.

He said the school had talked to the MIAA three times in the past about going independent, but was denied. In the meantime opposing teams should look at playing St. Frances as the ultimate challenge.

That was the way other teams approached Dunbar and Calvert Hall boys basketball in the late 1970s and 1980s. They met the challenge instead of walking away from it.

“My counterparts at Mount St. Joe and Calvert Hall never called me to discuss the issue,” Turner said. “They say we don’t share the same values and that was some very hurtful stuff. It seems like there were a lot of meetings about us but I was never invited.”

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An earlier version of this column said St. Frances was 2-4 in 2014 and 0-8 in 2015.
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