For coach Anthony Zehyoue, Loyola Blakefield’s re-emergence into one of the area’s premier football programs has been as much about confidence as X’s and O’s.
So it’s no surprise how players on the No. 12 Dons are approaching Thursday’s 100th Turkey Bowl against No. 11 Calvert Hall — a team they’ve fallen to nine of the past 10 years ― in a game that marks the first time since 2009 both have entered Thanksgiving ranked in The Baltimore Sun’s Top 15.
“My past three years, we’ve just gotten caught up in the whole Calvert Hall hype,” Dons senior running back Kaire Umoja said. “This year, we’re just going into it as another football game. We trust our team and trust our game plan.”
As the nation’s oldest continuous Catholic prep-school football rivalry hits the century mark at Towson University’s Johnny Unitas Stadium, Calvert Hall will attempt to continue its recent dominance, while Loyola ― which still leads the all-time series 49-42-8 — looks to shift the script against its arch-rival.
The Dons, now in their second season of playing an independent schedule after leaving the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association, already have succeeded in shifting their attitude. Just two years after finishing 2-8, they enter their biggest game of the season at 8-1, building off an early 37-27 win over Georgetown Prep, a team now ranked No. 12 by The Washington Post.
“I think a lot of light bulbs went off, even for some of our most talented players,” Zehyoue said. “It took winning a game like that for them to realize, `Oh, we have a chance to be good.' The biggest thing I’ve found with high school kids is that 80% of the battle is a battle with confidence. It’s not plays, it’s not about this or that. … It’s a battle of confidence. Ensuring them they that belong, ensuring them they can compete. So having the season we’ve had is very critical.”
“Going against a team like Georgetown Prep — a very good-caliber team with a running back pretty close to what Calvert Hall has — and doing very well, it gave us a boost,” Umoja said. “It sort of solidified our confidence that we can do this and actually win.”
That confidence starts with junior dual-threat quarterback Jordan Moore, whose 2,014 passing yards, 606 rushing yards and 33 total touchdowns have helped Loyola bring its best record into a Turkey Bowl since starting 10-0 in 2008. Moore, who remains uncommitted, has nearly a dozen Division I offers on the table.
"You can't teach a kid to do some of the things he does," Zehyoue said. "He plays within our offense, but then he also has that moment that when something breaks down, he has that special ability to scramble a little bit and make guys miss."
"The thing that concerns me the most is that their quarterback is one of the five best players in Baltimore," Calvert Hall coach Donald Davis said. "We have to be aware of where he is at all times. If you're not aware, or you don't respect where he is, he's going to burn you. But, guess what? Even if you are aware and do respect where he is at all times, I still think he can burn you."
Still, the odds will be stacked against Loyola, which will need to find a way to slow All-Metro running back Sean Tucker, a Syracuse commit who last year torched the Dons for 177 yards rushing, time and again breaking arm tackles to average more than seven yards per carry. Now, the 1,000-yard back is looking for an encore in his final high school game.
"We're still working on what we did last year, because if it works why change it?" Tucker said. "But we've also got a few new players, and hopefully they'll work out the same as they did last year. We've won it in the past, but were not going to look at the past to determine our future. We've got to keep working hard to try and come out with the win."
A year ago, Tucker's big runs helped set up three touchdown passes from quarterback Amir Jenkins to 6-foot-3 receiver Cole Herbert, as the Cardinals took advantage of three first-half turnovers to score the first 26 points in a 40-7 win.
Zehyoue counted about 40 missed tackles by his team after reviewing video of the game. To have a chance this time, the Dons not only will need to improve their ball security, but also more effectively shed blockers at the line to free up multiple would-be tacklers.
Whether they can do that remains a question mark until kickoff. But whether they believe they can do it is no longer up for debate.
"Two years ago, a lot of these same kids who are shining for us this year started to get their feet wet, and we lost a lot of games," Zehyoue said. "We lost nine games that year, and a lot of those guys really struggled with confidence. Now, a lot of these guys are shining for us. It's a daily battle with their self-worth and making sure they understand that they belong."
LOYOLA VS. CALVERT HALL
Johnny Unitas Stadium, Towson University
Thursday, 10 a.m.
TV: Ch. 2 Radio: 105.7 FM
Series: Loyola leads 49-42-8
Last year: Calvert Hall, 40-7
Streak: Calvert Hall has won five straight and nine of 10
Head coaches: Calvert Hall — Donald Davis (13th season); Loyola — Anthony Zehyoue (fourth season)
Players to watch:
Calvert Hall — RB Sean Tucker (179 carries, 1,020 yards, 13 TDs); QB Amir Jenkins (66-for-148 passing, 716 yards, 7 TDs, 6 INTs); WR Cole Herbert (28 catches, 357 yards, 5 TDs); RB Cobie Floyd (50 carries, 215 yards rushing, 2 TDs); RB Raymond Glass Jr. (45 carries, 202 yards, 3 TDs); WR Kai Sasaki (13 catches, 135 yards); WR TE Kaelin Wade (10 catches, 124 yards, 3 TDs); LB Mike Johnson (47 tackles, 3 sacks); DL Chidi Ejoh (11 sacks, 14 tackles for loss); LB Kahlil Glover (45 tackles. 2 sacks, 1 INT, 1 fumble recovery); DB Ty Trinh (31 tackles, 3 INTs); DB Tre Jordan III (40 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 safety); K-P Peter Moore (10-12 FG attempts, 42.1 yards per punt).
Loyola — QB Jordan Moore (146-for-251 passing, 2,014 yards, 26 TDs, 5 INTs, 606 yards rushing, 7 TDs); RB Kaire Umoja (424 yards rushing, 198 yards receiving, 12 total TDs); RB-DB Micah Robinson (387 yards rushing, 7.3 yards per carry, 7 TDs, 3 INTs); WR Keegan Pross (41 receptions, 631 yards, 9 TDs); WR-DB Noah Bull (24 catches, 333 yards, 4 TDs, 4 INTs); WR Ben Schleiff (22 catches, 315 yards, 4 TDs); WR Peter Lukish (16 catches, 245 yards); DE Joshua Buck (69 tackles, 9 sacks); DL Cian Callahan (44 tackles, 7.5 sacks), DL Philip Florenzo (8 sacks, 2 fumbles recovered); LB Anto Saka (60 tackles, 1 INT); K-P Connor Gill (39 PATs, 5 FG, 34.5 yards per punt).
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Outlook: Calvert Hall’s Tucker leads a ball-control offense that has averaged 152 yards per game on the ground, often setting up play-action passes by Jenkins to top targets Herbert, Sasaki and Wade. Loyola counters with its own offensive weapon in Moore, a dual-threat quarterback capable of improvising on the fly when plays break down. His top receivers include Pross, Bull and Schleiff, who together account for nearly 1,300 receiving yards. The Dons also have gotten big production from Umoja and Robinson, who consistently have done damage whether taking the handoff or catching the ball out of the backfield. A quick start will be key. The Cardinals scored the first 26 points in last year’s rout, and have outscored the Dons 39-0 in the first quarter dating to 2015. Two of Calvert Hall’s three losses have come against No. 2 Mount St. Joseph, with the other against No. 3 McDonogh. The teams only have played one common opponent, Gilman, which both defeated via shutout.