St. Vincent Pallotti football is moving up to the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference as part of a modest realignment of the private school league’s divisions, while Loyola Blakefield will move from an independent to a member of the B Conference.
The Dons left the league three years ago after going winless in the A Conference for two years, but intended to be temporarily independent. The team continued to play a handful of A Conference opponents, including Turkey Bowl rival Calvert Hall.
The league committee approved the changes Tuesday and a 10-week, league crossover schedule in the fall, beginning Sept. 3. Each B Conference team will play a minimum of two A Conference opponents.
The A and B Conference semifinals begin the weekend of Nov. 13 with championships set for Nov. 20 or 21. The C Conference title goes to the program with the best record.
The A Conference will include Calvert Hall, Gilman, McDonogh, Mount Saint Joseph, Archbishop Spalding and Pallotti, while the B Conference is composed of Boys’ Latin, Concordia Prep, Archbishop Curley, Loyola Blakefield, John Carroll, St. Mary’s and St. Paul’s. Annapolis Area Christian, Mount Carmel, St. John’s Catholic and Severn make up the C Conference.
The shift to the A Conference signals a meteoric rise for Pallotti. The Laurel-based Panthers captured the C Conference crown in 2014 and its first B Conference title two years later. Pallotti made a statement in the most recent MIAA-sponsored season when it beat St. Mary’s, 42-0, for the 2019 B Conference title.
One of its recent products is Chase Young, a defensive end who starred at Ohio State and is a front-runner for the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award after being drafted No. 2 overall in April by the Washington Football Team. Recent graduate Jaret Patterson also led the nation in rushing yards per game (178.7) this past season at Buffalo and tied the Football Bowl Subdivision single-game rushing touchdowns record with eight in the team’s 70-41 win over Kent State.
Pallotti made a splash against A Conference teams this past fall. The Panthers recorded their first victory over an A Conference team in program history when they trounced Calvert Hall, 32-15, and also came close to beating Mount Saint Joseph on its own turf before falling in double overtime, 22-19, to close the season.
“I would say that we have a very good team — we’re young,” Pallotti coach Anthony Ashley said after the game. “I think we play well. Should we be an A team? It’s a lot of other factors that go into that. ... If you look at how well we’re doing, those are the behind the scene things that go along with being in the A conference. If you look at the A teams, they have 600 or more boys in their school. We have 200. I think we’re building our program. Are we there? No, but we want to be a national program.”
After Loyola Blakefield’s brief independence, coach Anthony Zehyoue also anticipates a temporary stay for his team in the B Conference.
“It’s where we need to be at the time,” Zehyoue said. “Especially because the way the league is now set up, those decisions are going to be reevaluated every year. That’s where we’re going to be this year, is what I want to emphasize. And the end of next season, [it] could be a different conversation.”
Moving to a conference poses an added benefit for Zehyoue and the Dons: 80% of his schedule is already filled with conference opponents. As a coach of an independent team, Zehyoue had to reach out to at least 10 other coaches as early as December to arrange dates for the upcoming season, and coaches could still cancel months later for any reason.
“Now I only have to fill in two games as opposed to have to fill 10 or 11,” Zehyoue said. “It’s a huge blessing in that regard.”
That last game with the Saints, as well as a loss to Archbishop Spalding a week earlier, cast light on what the Dons need to focus on in the 2021 season as a B Conference team.
“We’ve got to get significantly stronger. I look at [the Spalding game], they pushed us around and did whatever they wanted and there was nothing we could do about it,” Zehyoue said. “It’s more of a challenge to our team, our players, our coaches, to truly invest ourselves to the weight room. Those are the kinds of things we have to do to get ourselves ready for the future of making a move up.”
That said, Zehyoue appreciates the challenge ahead, chiefly in facing now-B Conference rival St. Mary’s.
“I think sometimes when people hear B Conference, they think ‘easy.’ It’s not,” Zehyoue said.
St. Mary’s coach Jason Budroni expressed a little bit of surprise that both teams were finally moved. After all, there had been attempts at doing so before; Loyola Blakefield has tried for a couple years, Budroni said. Last year, both Pallotti and St. Mary’s were nearly moved to the A Conference.
However, Budroni foresees both teams meshing with their new alignments.
“I think we’ve had good games in the last few times we played them,” Budroni said of Loyola Blakefield. “In that respect, they’ll be a good fit. They have a lot more boys than we do, so that’s gonna be a challenge for us.”
Pallotti’s move out of the B Conference marks the end of a brief but competitive era between the Panthers and St. Mary’s. The two met in the B Conference final in both 2018 and 2019.
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“Pallotti’s talented enough to go up,” Budroni said. “They have physical size and the athletes to play. I don’t think they were real excited about going, but I think they can definitely compete up there.”