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High School sports

Elite high school football is going national. St. Frances vs. IMG Academy in College Park is the latest example.

Even before Maryland hosts No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday, there will be dozens of Division I football players taking the field at SECU Stadium in College Park. Two of the top 10 high school football teams in the country, IMG Academy and Baltimore’s St. Frances Academy, will play Friday night in one of the most highly anticipated games of the year.

St. Frances is 8-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country by MaxPreps, a high school sports media website, and Florida’s IMG is 8-1 and ranked No. 10, with their only loss coming against the nation’s No. 3 team.

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They’ll square off at 7 p.m. — less than 24 hours before the Terps and Buckeyes play on the same field. Tickets for the high school game are $10 and can be purchased at the gate. Fans can also watch on FloFootball.com, with a subscription.

High school sports have traditionally been, and still are, played locally and regionally. Winning conference or state is almost always the culmination of a season, and playing out-of-state games is rare. But high school football has grown more national in recent years, with college-like “bowl” games being held at season’s end and more and more out-of-state games taking place.

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No programs have embodied this trend more than St. Frances and IMG, each of which attracts top talent from outside of its city and even state. They are essentially all-star teams and each travels across the country to find competitive opponents. IMG has faced comparable foes for much of its schedule, but it also hosted a Toronto prep team last week — taking a 96-0 lead before the game was called off at halftime.

St. Frances, a school of about 200 whose enrollment is roughly three-quarters Black, launched a football program in 2008 and quickly ascended. The school won the 2016 and 2017 Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championships and in 2018, other MIAA schools essentially said the Panthers were simply too good and refused to play them. For the last few years, St. Frances has played a national schedule, traveling the country to find quality opponents. This year, they played just one Maryland opponent, Arundel, defeating them 50-0.

St. Frances Academy football coach Messay Hailemariam, right, talks to his team during practice at Utz Field at Patterson Park earlier this year.

The Panthers have gone to Ohio to play a top Illinois team and played road games in Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Connecticut and Hawaii. One week, they returned by bus from South Carolina only to fly to Hawaii less than 24 hours later. Their first “home” game, which also took place in College Park, came last week.

But their biggest game is yet to come. MaxPreps called their matchup with IMG the national game of the week.

“The culmination of all the work, the offseason workouts, the spring football, the summer camp, the season leading up to this,” said St. Frances coach Messay Hailemariam. “This is the day. This is what you look forward to.”

It’s almost a fool’s errand to accurately crown a national high school champion, since there are so many teams, and many play local schedules, but polls still try and identify the top team. IMG was crowned the national champion in 2020 by several polls and St. Frances, which is ranked No. 2 by multiple outlets, might have a chance to do the same this year.

Ranked No. 2 in the nation, there is still a path for the Panthers to be crowned the top team, should the No. 1 team — California’s Mater Dei — lose in the playoffs. And if St. Frances wins Friday, they could be invited to play in a Geico Bowl game in Las Vegas in December.

However, an invitation is not guaranteed, even with a win, and Friday could be the Panthers’ final game of the season.

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IMG and St. Frances have a standing agreement to play each year, and St. Frances is the only team to have twice defeated IMG, which launched its football program about a decade ago. The Bradenton, Florida, program has been a dominant force for the last several years, but so has St. Frances. It’s a matchup of high school titans.

“This is the Mecca, this is the game that everyone is looking for, the coaches and players included,” Hailemariam said. “This is for the marbles.”

Hailemariam estimated that St. Frances has 50 players on its roster with multiple Division I offers, and IMG is also stocked with top college prospects.

St. Frances Academy football players stretch during warmups before practice at Utz Field at Patterson Park earlier this year.

The St. Frances defense is anchored by LSU commit Dashawn Womack, Southern California commit Sam Greene, plus heavily recruited junior Edrees Farooq. The Panthers’ offense is led by Michael Van Buren, one of the top junior quarterbacks in the country, Boston College commit Durell Robinson and Ryan Manning, a Maryland wide receiver commit.

Biff Poggi, the longtime Gilman coach who recently was named the next head coach at Charlotte, financially helped St. Frances launch a football program in 2008 and he eventually became the school’s head coach. Funded largely by donors, the program — which does not even have its own field — quickly ascended into a national power.

David Cordish, president of the Cordish Companies, is one of many in Baltimore who have donated to the school. He was not familiar with the East Baltimore school until about 15 years ago, when he “fell in love with the place and what they’re doing.”

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The East Baltimore school was established nearly 200 years ago, “thirty-five years before President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation,” the school’s website notes. It’s remained open since then and now has become nationally known in high school football circles. Cordish, however, is as supportive of the school as he is of the athletics.

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“I think it’s an institution — and a football team — but an institution that Baltimore City ought to be very proud of,” Cordish said.

At least a few thousand people are expected to attend the high school football matchup of powers in College Park, and Cordish plans to be among them.

“I will be there with bells on,” he said.

No. 2 St. Frances vs. No. 10 IMG Academy

SECU Stadium, College Park

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Friday, 7 p.m.

Stream: FloFootball.com


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