More than 50 supporters of the St. John’s College High School football team lined the sideline in the waning moments of the team’s semifinal loss to Gonzaga, yelling their frustration. Upset over what they believed was a missed call on a game-sealing touchdown for their opponent, they were soon drowned out by the visiting Gonzaga student section, which celebrated its team’s playoff victory on this chilly Saturday in mid-November with a roaring cheer of “God is purple! God is purple!”

As the players, many of whom rank among the nation’s top college prospects, exited the field in upper Northwest Washington, a sideline reporter rushed over to conduct postgame interviews for the online stream.

It was an exhilarating scene, but one that is commonplace in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, a history-rich league that is beginning to look more like major college football than your typical high school matchup under Friday night lights. 

The WCAC, made up of 13 private schools from around the D.C. area, has long cut a national profile, particularly for its deep basketball tradition. But football in the conference has recently ascended to another level — from resources to recruiting and overall enthusiasm — with three of its schools ranked among MaxPreps’ latest top 30 in the country. Most observers point to a $16 million donation to St. John’s from school alumnus and Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank in 2015 as the moment the game changed.

“All the programs in the WCAC are doing what they can to separate themselves from the next, whether it is performance on the field, recruiting, it’s just extremely competitive,” DeMatha Coach Elijah Brooks said. “The drive to win a championship is forcing coaches to recruit harder, really spend time going and getting top players.”

That competitiveness has manifested itself in several ways, from teams drawing in players from outside the D.C. metro area — from Delaware and Connecticut to as far away as Hawaii — to schools playing nationally ranked out-of-state opponents to donors designating gifts specifically to the football team, often going toward players’ tuition.

“Who doesn’t want to be with the No. 3 school in the country and be considered the team to beat?” said St. John’s defensive lineman Tre Williams, who transferred from a Connecticut prep school in March. “Who doesn’t want to be with the best?”

'A necessary evil'

After Gonzaga’s semifinal victory, the intensity spilled from the field to Twitter, with kids — and adults — from the rival fanbases sending jabs back and forth. “BUILT NOT BOUGHT #HAILGONZAGA” read one tweet. “Plank can’t buy this,” read another. “Did Kevin Plank miss a payment?” They represented a digital version of the sentiment expressed on a sign held by one Gonzaga student at the semifinal: “Catholics vs. Transfers.”

Intense rivalries among the WCAC’s most successful schools in athletics are nothing new, but the publicity of Plank’s donation, and subsequent success of many of the Cadets’ athletic teams, has ramped things up. Last season, St. John’s won its first WCAC football championship since 1989 and spent much of the 2018 season atop local and national rankings, featuring a roster loaded with Division I-bound talent. Over the past three years, the Cadets have won 17 WCAC championships across all sports, compared to just six from 2013 through 2015.

The school’s recent history of attracting transfer players, specifically quarterbacks — Kasim Hill from Baltimore power Gilman , Kevin Doyle from Malvern Prep in Pennsylvania and Sol-Jay Maiava from Kahuku High in Hawaii — has drawn occasional ire from opposing fans. Hill and Doyle have gone on to play Division I football at Maryland and Arizona, respectively, and Maiava is being recruited by several top programs.

“It is kind of a necessary evil for St. John’s,” said Terrence Byrd, president of the Maryland Heat, a youth football organization in the D.C. area, commenting on the scrutiny and opponent criticism that has resulted from the school’s athletic success. “You are going to have to take the good with the bad.” 

Similar to a major college program’s sports information department, St. John’s also employs a communications office that handles media requests for athletes and coaches. Through a spokeswoman, St. John’s officials declined to be interviewed for this story.

'The footprint is larger'

While the Cadets are the most clear-cut example of the WCAC’s recruiting expansion, they are not the only team broadening its approach to acquiring talent. In previous years, coaches in the conference would sometimes contact players as early as seventh grade and attend youth football games in hopes of glimpsing the next up-and-comer. Now, the practice is commonplace. 

“The August or September of eighth grade year I had kids tell me, ‘Oh, I committed to DeMatha,’ ” said St. Mary’s Ryken Coach Aaron Brady, who was Gonzaga’s coach from 2010 to 2013. “ ‘You what? You didn’t even apply to a school yet!’ ”

The competition for local players is fierce, but St. John’s isn’t the only WCAC school to reach beyond the D.C. area for players. Good Counsel Coach Andy Stefanelli said he’s increasingly fielding questions from prospective international students. 

“The footprint is larger now,” Stefanelli said. “People are willing to drive longer distances to bring their kids to schools like Good Counsel, so we find ourselves going out to farther areas.”

The result has been a culture of transferring and recruiting that mirrors other nationally known high school football conferences, such as California’s Trinity League. Widely recognized as among the best football conferences in the country, it features schools such as Mater Dei and St. John Bosco that have long lists of graduates who have gone on to play in the NFL.

The WCAC has long been among the most prominent high school leagues in the Mid-Atlantic and has separated itself from other private school leagues in the D.C. area like the Interstate Athletic Conference (which includes Bullis, Georgetown Prep and Landon) that place an emphasis on sports but have smaller enrollments and don’t recruit at the same level as the WCAC. One IAC coach likened the WCAC to the Big Ten and the IAC to the Ivy League. 

“All kids want to go there,” former DeMatha coach Bill McGregor said of the WCAC schools. “It’s almost like a no-brainer.” 

Student-athletes attending WCAC schools are eligible for academic and need-based aid, which help offset base annual tuition costs that range from $18,000 to over $23,000 among the schools with the top four football teams: DeMatha, Gonzaga, Good Counsel and St. John’s.

None of the WCAC schools have dormitories, so when out-of-state transfer students enroll, either their families move with them, or the students live with nearby relatives or teammates’ families.

Good Counsel, similarly to the other three schools, offers a way for alums to designate donations through the “Falcon Fund” to a specific sports team, artistic discipline or academic subject area. Last year, the school raised over $1.5 million in total annual giving. 

'It's getting better'

The fence in front of the Gonzaga student section collapsed as a wave of jubilant teenagers, many of them shirtless, found themselves on the ground at Catholic University the Sunday before Thanksgiving, spilling onto the field in celebration.

Seconds earlier, Gonzaga sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams, who has a slew of Division I offers, heaved a Hail Mary pass more than 60 yards in the air. It was caught in the end zone by senior John Marshall, a Navy commit, giving the Eagles a 46-43 championship game victory over longtime rival DeMatha.

The game featured a historic comeback and three lead changes in the final 30 seconds . Video of the winning play went viral on social media and was featured as the No. 1 play on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” on an NFL Sunday.

It was just the latest piece of national exposure for WCAC football, but while the bar of competitiveness continues to be raised, some within the conference offer notes of caution.

“When you start talking about programs that want to go national and win at all costs, it is just about getting kids and selling them scholarships and creating all-star teams in essence,” Stefanelli said. “It seems like some schools and programs are going in that direction, and I don’t think that is a good thing for high school football.”

But there are no signs within the league of slowing down. Take Gonzaga’s highlight-filled win. The ESPN appearance will undoubtedly increase awareness among prospective student athletes. The league title is a potential recruiting tool for players choosing among WCAC schools. Alums might feel more inclined to donate money. And the conference will continue to send football players to the next level.

“It’s a really, really super strong league,” Gonzaga Coach Randy Trivers said. “The quality of ball is not getting worse or flattening out; it’s actually getting better.”