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St. Frances leaves football controversy behind, fills schedule, still ranks among nation's best teams

St. Frances leaves football controversy behind, fills schedule, still ranks among nation's best teams
St. Frances football coach Biff Poggi, center, on the sideline of his team's scrimmage against Good Counsel on Aug. 17 at Utz Stadium in Patterson Park. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

The St. Frances football team left a summer of controversy behind as it took the field for its first scrimmage Aug. 17.

Lining up against Good Counsel at Utz Field in Patterson Park, the Panthers weren’t thinking about the other Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference programs that won’t play them this fall. They just wanted to play football.

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“It felt great,” Shane Lee, a senior linebacker and Alabama commit, said afterward. “We worked so hard in the offseason, in the summertime. Just to get out here and compete against somebody that’s not our own feels really good.”

Early in the summer, there was no guarantee the Panthers would even have a football season this fall.

Unquestionably the best team in Baltimore, the two-time A Conference champions had grown too big and too strong for the other teams in the conference after a 13-0 season with an average winning margin of 36.4 points. They finished last fall No. 4 in USA Today’s Super 25.

St. Frances scrimmages Good Counsel. The Panthers have put a summer of controversy behind them, getting onto the field, filling out an independent schedule and ranking among the nation's top 10 teams after MIAA A Conference teams dropped them at the beginning of the summer.
St. Frances scrimmages Good Counsel. The Panthers have put a summer of controversy behind them, getting onto the field, filling out an independent schedule and ranking among the nation's top 10 teams after MIAA A Conference teams dropped them at the beginning of the summer. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

On May 29, Mount Saint Joseph officials announced they would not play St. Frances this fall, citing safety reasons and many transfers. Calvert Hall, McDonogh, Archbishop Spalding and Gilman followed in the next few days.

With five big holes in his schedule, Panthers coach Biff Poggi considered disbanding the program.

“If we couldn’t have gotten a schedule, we’d have been forced to,” Poggi said. “I wasn’t going to keep these kids. Much of their college opportunity is related to what they do on the field in the fall. I wasn’t going to do that to them.”

Football players don’t have club or Amateur Athletic Union seasons, so they rely on film from their high school games to impress college recruiters. Poggi credited co-head coach Henry Russell and assistant coach Bill McGregor with cobbling together an 11-game schedule that saved their season.

The Panthers open with one of their strongest opponents, St. Joseph’s Prep from Philadelphia, at Maryland Stadium in College Park on Friday night at 7:30. St. Frances is No. 8 this week in USA Today’s Super 25 while St. Joseph’s is No. 17.

They also have Christ the King from New York City, Life Christian Academy from Richmond, Va., and St. Thomas More from Oakdale, Conn.

Russell said he, Poggi and assistant coaches McGregor and Messay Hailemariam called everyone they knew who might help them add games at a time when most teams already had full schedules for 2018.

“A lot of people had heard what was happening around the country and were involved in helping us schedule games,” Russell said. “They reached out to anybody with dates still available. I’m still trying to get one more game scheduled. There have been a lot of people reaching out to help us.”

While the coaches worked to put the season back together, the players carried on with their offseason workouts and college considerations.

All-Metro quarterback and Florida commit Jalon Jones left to go home to Richmond, saying he wanted to play his senior year near home, but all the other top prospects stayed, including Lee and offensive lineman Darrian Dalcourt, also headed to Alabama, as well as running back Joachim Bangda and defensive end Chris Braswell, who both have offers from the defending national champions.

The players heard the reasons each school gave for dropping them and they also heard the response of their principal, Dr. Curtis Turner, and others who said they believe at least some of the decisions were racially motivated toward the small Catholic school in East Baltimore with a predominantly African-American student body.

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Lee said the team just kept working as if nothing had happened.

“We just try to control the controllables honestly,” Lee said. “We can’t make the other teams play us. For whatever reason, they’re not and it’s out of our control. We just have to do what we do. Just to come out here and just to play with my guys — I grew up with some of these guys and it’s our last ride, so we’re just going to make the most of it.”

Said Dalcourt: “We’ve been really eager to get out here to play good competition. I think it was good for everybody to get those reps against a good team. I honestly think that when we go against ourselves, it’s the best competition, but it was still good to go against other people.”

Coaches at Good Counsel, a perennial powerhouse from Olney in Montgomery County, had no problems coming to Utz Field to play the Panthers.

The Falcons moved up to 19 this week in USA Today’s Super 25, but the Panthers had little trouble with them in the scrimmage. Both coaching staffs were more focused on honing plays and evaluating personnel. Still Good Counsel never made it into the end zone while St. Frances did three times.

Even so, Good Counsel coach Andy Stefanelli said he wouldn’t mind playing the Panthers in a real game next year.

“I would have no problem with that,” Stefanelli said. “They’re a very good team. They’re very well coached. I don’t know the issues with all the other teams, but they’re very good and it would be a huge challenge for us to play them in a game, but we’ll probably talk about doing that next season.”

Said Poggi: “We would love to play them.”

Russell said the coaches will start talking about next year’s schedule in September, but they’re already talking with the top two teams in the USA Today Super 25, No. 1 IMG, from Bradenton, Fla., and No. 2 St. John Bosco, from Los Angeles County. IMG was the last team to beat the Panthers, 38-0, in the 2016 season finale. St. Frances has never played Bosco.

With their program on solid ground once again, the Panthers coaches and players are focused only on their main goal.

“It’s to be the best team in the country,” said Russell, whose team has already been declared 2018 A Conference champion.

“We think our kids work extremely hard and want to compete with the best and that’s what we’re trying to do. I think the kids take a lot of pride in that goal and they’re also proud of all the support that’s poured into the program since everything has taken place.”

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