For Riverdale Baptist seniors, pursuit of scholarships stresses

On a warm, clear Monday afternoon on a year-old, state-of-the-art turf football field in Upper Marlboro, the Riverdale Baptist football team played.

At one point, the ballcarrier made a particularly nasty juke to shift a defender out of position, giving himself space to break free toward the sideline. Hoots, hollers, and “oh shoot!” echoed over the Crusaders’ new stadium and the parking lot adjacent, the sounds of pure football joy from teenagers just playing a game.

Funny, because when the practice clock stops, that’s the same game those same players hope will determine their very real futures, the same game that causes them constant worry as it threatens to break its promise of a college scholarship and all the opportunity it brings, the same game that’s given them so much hope, but that also has the power to strip it away.

“You can’t sleep at night thinking I might not go to college next year,” said Crusaders senior running back Justin Baynes, who transferred from Laurel before his junior year. “It’s been tough for all of us.”

At a school like Riverdale Baptist, in an area loaded with as many other private school football powers as it is football talent to fill them, an improved chance at a college scholarship (and the chance to play on that new turf field) serves as the football team’s main appeal to would-be transfers, many of them from public schools around Prince George’s County.

Coach Bob Shields hopes to develop a niche in that crowded D.C.-area recruiting scene, using his new facility, his school’s academic appeal, and Riverdale Baptist’s goals to grow enrollment as a means to build a powerful football team that doubles as a factory for college scholarship recipients.

“The game’s really growing here, and Maryland’s becoming a semi-hot bed for football talent. College coaches are starting to come here and look for talent, and there’s a lot of competition for exposure,” Shields said. “But if a college coach is over at DeMatha and he says ‘Hey, are there any other private schools I should check out around here?’ we want someone to say Riverdale Baptist.”

To build his team’s profile and thereby improve his players’ college chances, Shields says he emphasizes football, academics, and off-field character, both to give his team and school a sterling reputation, and also to ensure nothing stops talented players from reaping the college tuition that could come from their on-field efforts.

“We want to grow the program and get kids into college, give their parents a lottery ticket,” Shields said. “We want to teach them to work hard at academics and football, to be a good citizen off the field.”

Shields also built his team a Web site featuring player highlights and contact information to make recruiting Crusaders as easy for college coaches as he can.

“He’s doing everything he can,” Baynes said of Shields. ” He brings you down to his office and asks you ‘what colleges would you like to go to?’ and he sends tapes out to all the colleges. That’s another part of the reason we all came here.”

Tackle Kyle Lattimore added, “A lot of coaches don’t even make tapes for their own players, so you’ve got to go do it yourself or pay somebody to do it. Just the fact that he takes the time out of his busy day to help us, it’s great.”

But that’s not to say he or his players forsake winning for the sake of scholarships.

“I think a main factor [in the difficulties of our recruiting process] is Riverdale hasn’t been successful in previous years, and it seems coaches want winners,” Lattimore said. “I think if we can prove we can win, then maybe the offers will come.”

Mediocrity doesn’t exactly inspire recruiters when proven winners are available a few miles away, so improving on the team’s near-.500 mark over the past few seasons is the overarching goal for Shields and his players. This season, Riverdale Baptist is 5-0, and a potentially telling rematch with Capital Area Football Conference foe Avalon (3-3), who beat the Crusaders 46-45 last year, looms this weekend.

But for Riverdale Baptist seniors, there’s much more on their minds than past rivalries and histories. Though several players — among them Baynes, Lattimore, wide receiver Lonnie Hightower, and lineman Klarance Simpson — have received calls and letters of interest from coaches, none have an offer in hand yet. Coaches told them they’d need to see one more season’s worth of film before making any commitments, a scenario that plays out for scholarship hopeful seniors throughout the area and the country, and leaves them in a season-long, pressure-filled purgatory.

“Over the summer, I was getting calls every day, e-mails every day,” Baynes said. “But it seems like during the season, it just all went away. It just stopped. I think they want to see what we can do during the season and win the championship.”

So far, the players have held up through the mental grind and controlled all the recruiting variables they can. Baynes has rushed for 757 yards and seven touchdowns in five games. Hightower’s caught 17 passes for 264 yards and six scores. Lattimore has made 19 tackles, racked up 3.5 sacks, and caused seven hurries. Simpson has anchored the Crusaders’ offensive line while recording 22 tackles and a safety defensively. All of them seem to meet Shields’s hopes for character, all look-you-in-the-eye, “yes ma’am”-type kids. And, so far, they’ve won.

But the question remains: for a team still growing in regional stature and in numbers, will the equation of winning plus stand-out performances add up to offers.

“I like the pressure [of knowing we have to perform to get offers],” said Hightower. “But I feel like all the work’s just not getting rewarded yet.”

As Baynes, Hightower, Lattimore, Simpson and junior quarterback Amir Hall — who’s gaining no comfort in watching and learning from his elders’ agonizing process — stood in a semicircle after practice, the friends laughed when asked if they talk about the trials of the recruiting process.

Lattimore then answered for all of them:

“All day, every day.”

Chelsea Janes covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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Brandon Parker · October 1, 2013