Several factors had fueled anticipation for the Pallotti football team's game Friday afternoon against Boys' Latin near Baltimore.
The matchup, between two teams undefeated in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference Silver Division entering the game, would result in only one having the inside track to the title. More significant, however, was that the Panthers knew they would be the first team from Prince George's County to emerge from indoor practices and once again play football.
Though Pallotti's dreams of winning its first MIAA championship will have to wait until next year after its 35-0 loss to the Lakers, the Panthers took something with them after leaving the muddy field at Boys' Latin.
"We got to play, and we were the only ones in Prince George's County who got to play a football game this week," Pallotti sophomore wide receiver Tim Jennings said. "And because of that, I wouldn't want to trade places with any team."
Said Pallotti junior tight end Steve Olive: "We had talked about this all week. This was our Super Bowl. This is what we were working for all year. This was our championship game."
In the week leading up to the game, Pallotti (4-3, 1-1) and Boys' Latin (7-0, 4-0) took different paths. It was business as usual for the Lakers, one of the top teams in Baltimore. Neither their practice schedule nor facilities had been affected by the recent sniper shootings that had dramatically altered the high school sports scene in and around Prince George's County.
Pallotti had not practiced outside since Oct. 11, as school officials mandated the team practice inside because of safety reasons after an eighth-grader was shot by a sniper outside of Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie on Oct. 7.
In the week leading up to Pallotti's biggest game of the season, the Panthers worked on conditioning, walked through offensive and defensive schemes and threw short passes. As for Pallotti working on its two biggest strengths -- its tackling and sophomore quarterback Kevin Olive's ability to throw deep passes to Jennings -- the wood floors and low ceiling made it impossible.
"This week in practice we couldn't hit and we couldn't throw long passes," Jennings said. "Those are things you can't just turn on when you need them."
Pallotti's inability to perfect its strengths ended up costing the Panthers any chance to defeat Boys' Latin. Pallotti's defense missed numerous tackles near the line of scrimmage that resulted in big plays for the Lakers, who rushed for 209 yards and scored touchdowns on five of their first six possessions.
Pallotti also struggled on offense after averaging 27.1 points per game in its first six outings. Olive's passes to Jennings (who has an area-leading 10 touchdown receptions) were consistently too short. The Panthers committed three turnovers, and they drove inside the Lakers 20-yard line just twice -- the last one coming with less than two minutes to play.
"I thought both teams were evenly matched coming in, but we got out-hit, and that's understandable because we didn't get to practice," Pallotti Coach Jack Mead said. "But I'm proud of what our team has been able to accomplish, and the most important thing we need to realize is that our season is not over."
Though Pallotti's chances of winning the league title ended with its loss to Boys' Latin, the Panthers have already made great strides in Mead's first season. The Panthers, 2-7 a year ago, had won three in a row before Friday's game. With two victories over its final three opponents, Pallotti would have its first winning season since 1993. The Panthers' four wins this season are its most since 2000.
"The biggest difference with Coach Mead's system is we believe we can win," Pallotti senior nose guard Chris Whary said. "We are a lot better this year than we were last year. If we can finish with a winning record, that would be very important for the future of this team."