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Football players from St. Frances Academy celebrate one of their 10 victories in 2018.
Football players from St. Frances Academy celebrate one of their 10 victories in 2018. (Toni L. Sandys)

The Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference will feature a new look for football this season as St. Frances officially becomes an independent to play a national schedule.

Lee Dove, executive director for the MIAA, said that there will be five teams competing in the A Conference this season. Calvert Hall, Gilman, McDonogh, Mount Saint Joseph and Archbishop Spalding are in the mix while Loyola Blakefield is playing a nonconference schedule again as the team works on rebuilding its program.

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St. Frances has won the A Conference the past three seasons, including last year, even though MIAA teams refused to play the Panthers, with some citing safety concerns stemming from the team’s skill and speed advantage. Still, St. Frances was awarded the 2018 title without playing a conference game, but the Panthers won’t be in the mix this season.

And that seems to be a solution that pleased all sides.

“St. Frances is totally independent this year,” Dove said. “After the events of last year and numerous meetings, the board of governors and myself decided that, in the best interests of MIAA football and St. Frances’ interest to pursue a national schedule, we felt it best to give them an opportunity to play independent of the league.”

St. Frances cobbled together a schedule after last year’s MIAA fallout. The Panthers finished 10-0 and were ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 6 in the nation, according to the final MaxPreps poll. The Panthers’ 2019 schedule is a national one. They began the season Aug. 24 ranked No. 2 nationally by MaxPreps and rolled to a 49-13 victory at Miami Central last Saturday and will travel to Florida, New Jersey and California.

“When everything went down last summer, we kind of just decided to move on,” St. Frances co-coach Henry Russell said. “There’s a lot of unknowns. Now, we kind of know that they were happy to let us go independent, and we’re happy it didn’t hurt the other schools in the conference. We didn’t want to hurt the other sports in the MIAA.”

St. Frances head football coach Henry Russell.
St. Frances head football coach Henry Russell. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Russell said St. Frances is trying to prepare for its challenging schedule, and that’s going to be a tall task. The Panthers will take on powerhouses such as Mater Dei in California on Sept. 14.

They played a similar type of schedule against national opponents last season, albeit against much weaker teams, and outscored them 477-32. The 2019 schedule should prove to be much tougher — and Russell is well aware of that and looking forward to it.

“We’re really excited about the challenge,” Russell said. “The kids are energized. We’re just excited about everything.”

Dove emphasized that the decision to back out of games with St. Frances last year were made by individual schools. There was no league-wide mandate.

But Dove and other coaches are happy with how everything looks going forward. Coaches and players can simply concentrate on football.

“We’re glad as a team and coaching staff to not have distractions going on this year that are beyond our control,” Mount Saint Joseph coach Rich Holzer said. “Ultimately, what our kids and staff want to do is just play football.”

The Panthers simply dominated the league the last few years, but this season brings more competitiveness to the conference.

“I just think, at the end of the day, this is a kid’s game,” Calvert Hall coach Donald Davis said. “Kids want to go out and play ball and have fun and enjoy themselves. It’s never good when negative energy surrounds them. I think this is going to be an exciting year in the A Conference. I don’t think there’s a clear-cut favorite.”

Davis said he thinks many are disappointed with the way everything unfolded last year, but like Dove and others, he likes that the A Conference has real clarity this season. There should be plenty of competitive football this time around.

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Archbishop Spalding coach Kyle Schmitt is excited about that as well.

“I think it’s going to be incredibly balanced and competitive,” Schmitt said. “Just really good football teams that are well-coached. I just think the balance of the league is going to be as strong as it has been in eight or nine years.”

For this year’s championship, there’s going to be two semifinal games and then a championship set for Nov. 16 at Spalding. The B Conference game is going to be played there also, and Dove said there won’t be a C Conference final this season.

In the end, most involved with the MIAA A Conference seem happy to have settled everything and are curious to see what 2019 brings. The bottom line is everyone feels this is a situation that should work well for all sides. St. Frances will play a national schedule, and the A Conference should be rather competitive.

“We can get back to some normalcy,” Dove said. “It was tough on us. It was tough on them. We’re happy about the situation because it gives us some normalcy, and it gives St. Frances a chance to pursue its goal.”

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