Rodney McInnis could not be happier playing high school football at Concordia Prep.
Three years ago, the senior nose guard feared he might never have that chance again. Midway through his freshman year, several injuries to an already small team canceled the season. His sophomore year, Concordia Prep, formerly Baltimore Lutheran in Towson, did not field a football team.
McGinnis never considered leaving, so he played for Maryland Christian, a team mostly comprised of home-schooled students, but it wasn’t quite the same. Thinking about the moment he heard the Saints had a new coach and would be back on the gridiron in 2017, McGinnis broke into a huge smile.
“I was excited. I get to play for my school again,” McInnis said of his reaction. Last fall “was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had in high school. It seemed different from my freshman year. … This feels like an actual team, like we can all get along with each other regardless of problems. Any team will have problems, but we’re able to get through it and play our brand of football.”
Not only are the Saints back, but they’re off to a 4-0 start this fall. They’ve beaten all three of their Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association C Conference opponents and have already matched last season’s win total.
Coming off a 4-6 season in 2017, the quick start surprised headmaster Brent Johnson and coach Josh Ward. It’s not easy to bring a team back, much less beat all conference opponents just two years later.
Ward, a 2004 Calvert Hall graduate, had a connection with Johnson, who helped start the Saints football program in 2001 and coached the team through 2011. Ward had been an assistant coach at several Division II and Division III college programs and had recruited some of Johnson’s players.
“It was interesting to me when I heard the headmaster’s a guy who wants to build the athletics program,” Ward said. “It’s a small, coed Christian school, perfect location, so it really intrigued me and I wanted to run my own program. I was at the point in my life where I wanted to take over a program to see if I could build something from the ground up.”
And he got a chance to start from scratch. When Ward, who assisted at St. Frances in 2016, arrived at Concordia Prep the following year, there were five boys in the building who had played on the 2015 team.
Ward’s recruiting background helped him win over some talented freshmen and he also added some transfers, including a few — such as quarterback Colin Glenn from Calvert Hall — who likely would have spent their careers as backups but could earn starting jobs with the Saints.
Other transfers, such as tight end/defensive end Nimrod Westcott, just found a better fit at the small parochial school with an upper school enrollment of 209 students.
“I wanted to build [the program], because I knew in the future it was going to help me not just with football but, like when I get to college, with life skills,” said Westcott, a senior who transferred from Lansdowne.
“A lot of people take the easy way out, being able to say your team’s better, but you might not even play. … They don’t want to go somewhere where it would take hard work. But to get what you want in life, that’s what it takes.”
For Johnson, in his third year as headmaster, it was an easy choice to resurrect the program.
“We had already made an investment in football and so we thought we’d give it another opportunity with a different coach to see if we could attract the kind of kids that we’re looking for to grow the program in the MIAA,” he said.
Johnson said one of the keys was hiring the right head coach. Ward, also the athletic director, seems to have boundless energy for his players and his program.
While Ward said he’s not aiming to build a national power, his background as a college coach, including recruiting coordinator for four years at West Virginia Wesleyan, is a big selling point with prospective players even though they might not be top Division I prospects.
“Kids want to have fun and play football, but they also want to get to that next level and they need that guidance,” said Ward, adding his college experience helped bring in the players that have jump-started the program. “It definitely was difficult, but I love it. This is what I live for.”
Saints first-year assistant coach Emmanuel Holder, who played at Calvert Hall and Towson University, sees a lot of potential in the program.
“Knowing coach Ward and how he is, because of the way he recruited me — he got to know me not only as an athlete but as a person — I knew if that was the same thing he was doing with the kids that he brought in here, there was going to be a tremendous upside here,” Holder said.
The Saints roster of 47 includes 18 freshmen, including four starting on the offensive line along with senior Keyon Asgari. Most of their defensive line and top skill players are seniors, including Glenn, who has thrown for 504 yards and six touchdowns; running back Jhymir Pearson, who has rushed for 664 yards and seven touchdowns; and receiver Charles Byers, who has 175 yards receiving and three touchdowns.
Last year, the Saints played an independent schedule and went 1-2 against their current C Conference competition. They’re coming off a 24-6 win over Annapolis Area Christian, the defending conference champion. The Saints lost last year’s game, 27-6.
Their goal is to play for the conference championship Nov. 10 — a title they only won once, in 2007. They still have to play each of their conference rivals one more time.
Ward’s goal is first to win the C Conference championship and then probably move to the B Conference. Johnson, whose school also fields contenders in boys soccer and girls lacrosse, said he wants the program to be a strong C or B Conference team.
On Friday, however, the Saints will test themselves against one of Baltimore’s top teams when they travel to face MIAA A Conference contender Calvert Hall at 7 p.m. The schools are only about a mile apart and when Ward saw both were free this weekend, he reached out to Calvert Hall coach Donald Davis.
Even though Concordia Prep has five players from Calvert Hall and five coaches from Calvert Hall, Davis had no problems with either and agreed to the game.
“Donald and I go way back and we’re good friends,” Ward said. “So … we want to see what we have and we have so many connections and so many friends, I thought, ‘Why not?’ ”
The players, especially the seniors who want to leave their mark on the rejuvenated program, are eager to see how they match up with the No. 3 Cardinals, also 4-0.
“It’s definitely going to be a memorable one without question,” McInnis said, “and I don’t want to comment on us winning or losing, but I definitely think it will make a statement to both our conference and theirs, saying that, ‘We’re here, we have a team and we’re willing to face anybody.’ ”
An earlier version incorrectly stated that Ward had recruited Johnson’s sons. Ward had in fact recruited some of Johnson’s players. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.