When opening night arrives for D.C. high school football teams, not only will a new era get underway for the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association, but it also will mark the return to action for several once-dormant programs. Phelps will field a varsity football team for the first time since the late 1990s; Eastern will do the same for the first time in five seasons; Cardozo will be back in action after not playing last season; and Theodore Roosevelt — which had to forfeit a game in 2012 because of a lack of players — has more than 30 that compose a healthy roster for the first time in several years. Bell, which also had to forfeit a game last season, also has a strong cast of returners.
Those teams and McKinley comprise the Stripes Division of the DCIAA, the lower pool of teams.
Finding kids to play always has been the challenge for these programs, Eastern Coach Jason Strickland said.
“It’s been a while,” he said last week about having a varsity program. “As the school year gets closer and closer, you find more and more kids who are interested in playing. I guess they’re a little misinformed about football, that it actually starts at the beginning of August.”
Changes have been rampant on the DCIAA football landscape over the past few months — first the restructuring of the league occurred, then Spingarn closed in June, wiping out the team, followed by the introduction of new transfer rules by the DCSAA — but Phelps, Eastern, Cardozo and Theodore Roosevelt are more concerned with constant stability starting this season.
The pieces should be in place for that to happen. Roosevelt has been bolstered by several transfers, including Friendship Collegiate wide receiver Mike Jones, and Coach John Sharp said this week his team found a spark after it received new uniforms from Washington Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon.
Bell has several returning starters who will give the team a competitive shot at winning in the league, including junior linebacker and tight end Dontaye Sharp, who is expected to have a breakout year in 2013. At Eastern, a solid core of juniors has stuck together after roughing a junior varsity schedule for the past two seasons, including a strong backfield duo in Ora Moore and Dajuan Green. It hopes to make it the new Stripes city championship game on their home field Nov. 23, five days before the Turkey Bowl will be played there.
Parity hasn’t exactly characterized the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference in recent years.
The last 10 championships have been won by either DeMatha or Good Counsel, with DeMatha hoisting the trophy from 2003 to 2008 and Good Counsel winning the last four. While these perennial powers again enter the season as the conference’s top two teams, it’s not a given that they will be the last two teams standing.
The tricky part stems from having to beat an opponent twice. Come playoff time, coaching adjustments stand to expose vulnerable areas and matchup problems that might not have been evident in a regular season matchup.
Good Counsel has depth on the offensive and defensive lines led by Maryland commit Jesse Aniebonam at defensive end and Notre Dame recruit Sam Mustipher at left tackle. But the Falcons’ chances in five-peating will rely heavily on the development of new starting quarterback Bryan Strittmatter, who served as the team’s kicker last season.
DeMatha will look to exploit this with an experienced defense that returns nine starters. Deonte Holden’s speed off the edges and Ja’Whaun Bentley’s all-purpose play at linebacker are capable of rushing opposing teams into bad decisions. The task for Stags Coach Elijah Brooks will be turning a group he says “has the opportunity to be one of the best teams to come through DeMatha” into one marked by consistency.
Last year’s two other playoff teams, Gonzaga and St. John’s, have the tools to shake up the conference’s balance of power. Before last season, Gonzaga had defeated DeMatha four straight times, and offensively, the Eagles can contend with the best behind playmakers such as running backs Robbie Walker and Reggie Corbin.
Meantime, St. John’s has a dual-threat weapon in quarterback Will Ulmer, a Maryland commit. It’s no secret the Cadets’ production depends heavily on Ulmer, meaning several other players will need to step up if St. John’s hopes to win the title.
While most have their eye on the usual suspects, upstart schools such as O’Connell, which improved from 1-9 to 5-5 last season, and McNamara, which has a highly touted recruit in Damian Prince and a new coach in Keith Goganious, make for dark horses.
As a former player who tasted championship success at DeMatha and the current leader in search of his first coaching title, Brooks said:
“The WCAC is a tough road to travel, and no matter the history or expectations, we’ve got to stay focused and grounded,” Brooks said. “We know we have the potential to be special, but so do a lot of other teams.”
It’s not unusual for Chantilly Coach Mike Lalli to use an iPad to demonstrate positioning or a play for his linemen. But this season, technology that once was reserved for practice or postgame now will be able to join teams on the sideline.
A new rule from the National Federation of State High School Associations will expand the use of communication devices for the 2013 season. Players and coaches will be able to use any type of available technology during authorized conferences outside the 9-yard marks, on the sidelines and during halftime.
“It’s providing instant feedback, and that’s definitely an advantage from a coaching standpoint,” Lalli said. “We can show our quarterbacks exactly what we saw on a play and explain what we should have seen. It allows for more in-game adjustments.”
If a team does decide to take advantage of the revised rule, the biggest challenge might be deciding who on the sideline will be manning the camera.
“Using that technology would certainly be a great thing to have, but I just don’t have the support staff to do that,” longtime Centreville Coach Chris Haddock said.
“It’s a better bang for my buck to have my coaches work with the players person-to-person during games.”
Bigger schools with more staff and students could have paid coaches or volunteers working the sideline to snap images and videos for quick analysis. Former college assistant John Swigart will take advantage of whatever communication is available to gain the edge in his first season as coach at Atholton.
“I will utilize that opportunity right up to the last letter of the rule,” Swigart said. “For me, it will definitely be a benefit because I have the manpower in place to take advantage of new technology. For other teams with not as much resources, this could put them at a disadvantage.”
Thanks to a Maryland rule change this year, schools can play teams outside their classifications — a decision that sets up some interesting matchups that may sharpen the lines that separate 4A schools from smaller programs. Few schools scheduled such matchups in the rule’s debut season; large 4A schools often want to use nonleague games to strengthen their schedules with powerhouses from outside the region, and smaller schools could be risking player safety given the numbers disparity among the levels.
But in Prince George’s County, where 1A and 2A schools often feature just as many potential blue chip recruits as their larger foes, the change will let smaller, talent-heavy schools in the 3A/2A/1A division see how they stack up on the county’s biggest football stages.
Gwynn Park (2A), which tied for first in its league with a 10-2 record, will open Sept. 7 against 4A contender Eleanor Roosevelt, which went 6-3 in conference action in 2012. Potomac (3A) and Tennessee-bound linebacker Jerome Dews will get a shot at perennial 4A powerhouse Suitland and highly recruited WR/DB Nick Nelson on the same day.
Surrattsville of 1A, which went 3-5 in league last season, gets its shot against 4A Laurel, a team looking to bounce back from a 1-9 season in 2012. Largo, a 3A up-and-comer, will play Bladensburg (4A ), which went 3-6 in league last year.
The new-look schedules also create never-before-seen matchups of natural rivals. Class 2A state finalist Douglass will take on 4A state champions Wise in a highly anticipated, previously impossible battle of the two Upper Marlboro schools that draw players from bordering districts.
“We’d relish the opportunity [to play a bigger school],” Forestville Coach Charles Harley said. “I’m the second-longest tenured coach in P.G. County, and I can tell you 4A vs. 3A/2A/1A is a lot more competitive than people think. We just don’t get the opportunity to play.”
“It’s something new, and anytime there's something different, it’s interesting,” Wise Coach DaLawn Parrish said, though he was sure to add that his Pumas will approach the game no differently than any other.
Without the rule change, Wise likely would have headed out of the region for its opener, using its state title clout to set up a date with a prominent out-of-state foe. Douglass, on the other hand, likely will be eager to prove itself. Either way, interclass matchups such as that one will give Prince George’s County football fans a chance to see just how much size matters in their talent-rich county.
In the four-team MAC, one conference loss normally ends a team’s season. So when one team has a massive numbers advantage over its conference foes, the competition for a title is anything but competitive. That seems to be the case with Flint Hill, which had nearly 50 players on its roster last season compared to an average of 34 on Maret, the Potomac School and Sidwell Friends.
“We used to have 55, 60 kids come out and have enough for a full JV, full varsity. But it just seems like over the past two or three years with all the talk about concussions and their effect on football players, the numbers kind of dropped down a little bit,” Sidwell Friends Coach John Simon said. “ . . . I can’t speak for the big public schools, but I think the smaller public schools might be in the same boat.”
“I think honestly what separates our league more than any other league in the area is just numbers on the field,” Maret Coach Mike Engelberg said. “It’s just the depth, that’s the part that makes it tough. We pretty much have 11 two-way starters, and the other teams in our league have zero two-way starters.”
Numbers make scheduling decisions tough for private school coaches who want to build résumés with strong schedules but put players at risk when scheduling much bigger competition.
“You have to be real careful who you schedule,” Simon said. “If we have a freshman that’s really good, he’s going to have to be a pretty good sized freshman because we don’t want our freshman to come out and get scared away because he’s 14 and up against 17-year-old guys. That’s why the numbers are so important.”
And it’s not just a private school problem.
Forestville (1A) Coach Charles Harley said numbers make things hard on his team, which consistently plays bigger schools in the PG 3A/2A/1A conference.
“When we play Douglass and the bigger 3A schools or 2A schools, I’ll have 25; they’ll have 40.” Harley said. “This year I say, last year I had 26 and probably nine or 10 of them were experienced players that had done it awhile.”
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