With that title came higher expectations, and so far the Panthers have lived up to the hype, sitting atop The Baltimore Sun rankings since the preseason and claiming the top spot in the Maryland High School Football Media State Poll for the first time in program history in early September.
Spalding coach Kyle Schmitt knows his Cavaliers will have their hands full with the No. 17 ranked team in the USA Today Super 25 poll, which has outscored opponents a combined 267-16 this season, including three straight conference shutouts.
"They're incredibly talented and big and fast and athletic, everything you would expect from the No. 1 ranked team in the state and one of the top-ranked teams in the country," Schmitt said. "I think we're going to have to play, really, really, really well to be in it in the fourth quarter."
As conference foes, the Cavaliers and Panthers know each other well. Schmitt said that he has about 30 games worth of tape on St. Frances' staff, dating to their time at Gilman. He's also close with Panthers offensive coordinator Chris Baucia, who helped develop Maryland freshman quarterback Kasim Hill when he played for the Greyhounds. Schmitt said he and Baucia think alike when it comes to moving the football.
"Schematically, they're the same they were four, five years ago," Schmitt said. "We don't struggle to find an idea of what they may do."
Spalding's blueprint for success is similar to many underdogs: Stop the run game. Put the offense in third-and-long situations. Be efficient on offense.
"Not just explosive plays and big plays," Schmitt said, "but you've got to find the best way to move the football and shorten the game a little bit."
The Cavaliers hope to build on their offensive success in last year's game, during which they scored 29 points in the second half. But these are different teams, and Spalding has to figure out a way to contain Anoma, one of the nation's top defensive end recruits, from wreaking havoc in the backfield.
"Despite their roster basically completely turning over last year for the most part, we lost to these guys by three points last year, so mentally, I'm not worried about [their talent]," Schmitt said. "We talked about it, we prepared for these guys. We devoured the tape and looked for any weaknesses we could find on both sides of the ball, and we're going to try to attack them on Friday night. And they exist. There's not many, but we got to try to find them."
The Cavaliers enter the game averaging 31.6 points per game, but were also held to just six points in a loss to McDonogh.
"They're very talented on offense," St. Frances coach Henry Russell said. "They've always had a good offense under Kyle [Schmitt] and move the ball well. They have playmakers at running back and quarterback and some receivers are pretty dynamic, as well. They're pretty difficult to defend, probably one of the better offenses we'll see all year, and that's a challenge for us."
Russell said he is counting on his quarterback Jalon Jones to make the right reads on offense and linebacker Shane Lee to be ready mentally and physically, getting the defense in position and calling plays. With few surprises expected from either side, it will come down to execution.
"Conference play is so tough," Russell said. "Each coaching staff knows each other real well, a lot of tendencies and what teams like to do. It's definitely a challenge when they know what you like to do and they know what they like to do."
It will be senior night for Spalding, and Schmitt hopes to capitalize on the energy of the home crowd. At the same time, he doesn't want his team to lose focus. "Control the controllables," he said.
"We have no control over what St. Frances rolls out there on Friday night. We're going to control all of the elements that we have control over, and that's our emotions and how we react to things, our pace of play, our game plan. That's probably the biggest thing."