Northern Coach A.J. Berberian had plenty of options at the end of the first half of last week's game against Huntingtown, and he tried to consider every one of them.
With 28 seconds left in the half, the Patriots, ahead 34-0, regained possession at the Huntingtown 37-yard line. What would they do?
Should they take a knee and run out the clock, almost taking pity on the overmatched Hurricanes?
Should they run the ball into the line, even though the contact could risk injury to a player?
Should they try to score quickly and surpass a 35-point margin, which would start the second half with a running clock by virtue of the mercy rule?
Berberian chose the latter, even though it could have come across as unsportsmanlike. The Patriots lined up with four wide receivers and scored on a 24-yard pass one second before halftime to give them a 41-0 lead. The second half started with a running clock, and Northern won by that score.
The move rankled some on the Huntingtown sideline. Was Northern trying to run up the score?
"What if next week it's 7-6 and I've got the ball with 30 seconds left?" Berberian said, justifying the drive as a means to practice his two-minute offense. "You can't simulate that [in practice]. If I put up 34 in one half, why can't you? But if I put up 41 in a half and kick in a running clock, there's not enough time" to come back.
"Is it unfair to my kids that we outplayed you? I'm not going to tell my kids not to score. I'm not going to tell my kids to take it easy. You can't expect a team to let up in the first half. But in the second half, there's a sense of courtesy."
Huntingtown Coach Jerry Franks, who has been on the opposite end of this situation plenty of times, was disappointed by his team's performance, not Northern's.
"In the first half, go for it," Franks said. "But in the second half, when the game is out of reach, let's think about the kids because they are the ones who are getting hurt.
"I don't think A.J. did anything wrong. I don't think he was trying to rub it in, because if he wanted to get a few more [scores], he might have been able to."
Coaches have to walk a fine line in one-sided games such as that one or Thomas Stone's 54-0 victory over La Plata on Friday, which was 33-0 at halftime. Players practice a game plan all week. Why should they deviate from that, especially when they need the repetition for tougher games later in the season? Why should a team relax and threaten to fall into a bad habit?
On the other hand, what type of sportsmanship does it teach teenagers to continue to overpower a clearly weaker opponent? Even if the winning team had lost to the opponent by a similarly lopsided score in the past, what are the chances that the same players were involved in that game? Then the blowout is reduced to two coaches trading insults.
"It's more insulting to me when teams dummy up to bring themselves down to your level," La Plata Coach Chris Davidson said. "You don't teach your kids to take a knee. You don't teach your kids to slide out of bounds.
"I've heard horror stories of coaches putting [starters] back in to preserve a shutout, and if I ever get to that point, get me out of here. I don't think Steve was trying to do that," he said, referring to Thomas Stone Coach Steve Lindsay.
Lindsay said he pulled his starters when the Cougars went up 39-0 in the third quarter and the running clock started.
Sportsmanship "has got to be on your mind the whole time, especially once you get a running clock," Lindsay said. "You don't want to do anything crazy, like a fake punt or an onside kick."
On Thomas Stone's last touchdown Friday night, the Cougars went for a two-point conversion. That usually would raise a red flag for running it up, but Lindsay said it only happened because the snap on the extra-point attempt was bad and his team was forced to improvise.
Davidson said he dislikes the running clock, even when his team is losing, because it limits the number of plays for his reserves.
"Our main goal is to get guys into the game," Davidson said. "What do you teach your kids, if they work hard all week, and even though it's a 30- or 40-point game, you're still not going to get in?"
Given a few days to consider his choice, Berberian knows he couldn't have picked one that would have pleased everyone.
"I've been on both ends of it," Berberian said. "After this week, I learned that you can't win in that situation, no matter what you do."