Luke Ethington has heard the talk.

Even after McDonough won the 2010 Maryland 2A championship, the Rams coach could not avoid the whispers about the one game that year his team didn’t win.

“I’d see comments like, ‘Yeah, you guys are state champions,’ ” said Ethington, whose team finished 13-1 that season.
“ ‘But you still didn’t beat North Point.’ It’s funny, but that’s the way it is.”

Such is life in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference, in which mighty North Point looms over its five other Charles County rivals like something of a neighborhood bully.

McDonough is the SMAC’s most recent state champion — another Charles rival, Westlake, won a state crown in 2008 — but the Rams still feel as though they play in North Point’s shadow, and they relish the role of underdog in one of the league’s best rivalries.

“In our conference, you’re really not recognized until you beat North Point,” Ethington said. “The challenge is giving our kids the courage to face them knowing it’s almost a David versus Goliath situation.”

Since North Point became the latest Southern Maryland high school to open in 2005, the Eagles quickly grew into a conference power after they began varsity competition in 2007.

The Eagles are 29-3 in league play since 2008, have won a share of each of the past four conference titles and have gone 6-2 against McDonough and Westlake.

Add in the number of advantages, real and perceived, from which North Point benefits, and it’s no wonder rivals such as McDonough feel handicapped.

“Every conference has a team that has been fortunate enough to be on top,” said North Point Coach Ken Lane, whose team seeks its first region title. “When you’re up there, you’re on everybody’s radar.”

North Point, the only class 4A school in Charles, has an enrollment of about 2,200 students, far bigger than any of its rivals.

North Point steadfastly maintains that it does not recruit students for athletics, but because eighth-graders from anywhere in the county can apply to North Point and participate in its science, technology and industry academic programs, it creates the perception of what could be an unfair competition between Charles programs drawing from the same pool of future players.

Potential students can see that North Point teams win, and its athletes get the chance to play in state-of-the-art Eagle Stadium, which can hold up to 6,000 fans.

“That perception is out there, but I was there,” said former North Point athletic director A.K. Johnson, now the coordinator of student activities for Charles. “With these kids who apply to the STI programs as eighth-graders, as a coach or AD we have no idea if they’re an athlete or not.”

Regardless of where the players are drawn from — and Ethington says he has no problem with the county’s system — from 150 to 200 students try out for football at North Point each year. Last season’s varsity roster had 71 players.

McDonough, which hasn’t beaten North Point since 2008, has 41 players on its varsity squad.

“The biggest challenge for us is to not be intimidated by their numbers,” Ethington said. “Their game plan is ball control, and [Lane] can platoon kids in and out and wear opponents down by the third or fourth quarter.”

This season, North Point returns just four full-time starters and will have a varsity roster of about 50, perhaps bringing the team closer to the pack.

Still, when the rivals meet in Pomfret on Oct. 12, McDonough will again take on the role of underdog, looking for recognition.

“It’s a challenge every time we play them,” McDonough senior cornerback Alonte Dunn said. “We know it’s always going to be a battle.”