St. Frances’ decision to go national has not yet been officially declared to the league; DeMatha also dropped the Panthers

by Gary Adornato

Following Wednesday’s pronouncements from both co-head coaches of the St. Frances Academy varsity football team that the school has decided to play an independent varsity football schedule in 2018, paired, almost simultaneously, with the joint announcement from the heads of school at St. Frances and Calvert Hall College, it was assumed that peace and harmony had been restored to the world of MIAA A Conference football.

Not so fast.

Despite an email to the MIAA league office from Henry Russell stating the Panthers intentions to go independent in 2018, and a similar statement from Biff Poggi during two different radio interviews, the St. Frances administration has not yet officially informed the league of its intentions. Such notification must come from the school’s athletic director or the head of school, not a member of the coaching staff.

VSN has learned this had not yet been done and that, in fact, St. Frances may be backtracking a bit. When asked to verify the statements of his coaches, St. Frances athletic director Nick Myles told the league that he can not sign off on the statements of the coaches. This despite the fact that the coaches have begun to circulate a new 12-game schedule that does not include any of St. Frances’ MIAA league rivals.

The hesitation of St. Frances to make the formal declaration may center around the Panthers’ desire to still be named the MIAA A Conference champion, based on forfeits. The Panthers need some sort of state championship designation to remain eligible for an invitation to the GEICO State Champions Bowl Series, in which it participated last December.

The controversy began when Mount St. Joseph and Calvert Hall each sent separate written notifications to the league, on May 30th, that they would not be playing St. Frances in 2018, citing safety concerns. In a letter to its football families, St. Joe went one step further, stating, “With considerable research and much reflection, we no longer seem to share the same vision of the league in educating young people with a goal to foster a safe and healthy competitive environment.”

St. Frances Principal Dr. Curtis Turner responded with an open letter, published on the school’s web site, expressing dismay over the positions taken by two fellow Catholic schools, stating in part, “…these nefarious elements seek to destroy rather than build. They seek to divide rather than unify. In fact, it is our uniqueness that makes us a great fit for the league and an asset to the City of Baltimore. We are deeply saddened that others do not see that.”

At the time, VSN reported that fellow MIAA A Conference football schools McDonogh and Archbishop Spalding were considering dropping St. Frances from their schedules, while Gilman School stated publicly that it intended to play the league schedule it was issued, “at this time.”

VSN also reported that IMG Academy in Florida had dropped its game with St. Frances and at least one additional non-MIAA school was considering dropping the Panthers. Both of these facts were disputed by Russell.

VSN has verified that the IMG game was in fact cancelled, by mutual agreement, weeks ago, before either school’s schedule was formalized. St. Frances had been scheduled to go to IMG last year, but the game was cancelled because of Hurricane Irma. IMG wanted the Panthers to come to Florida in 2018 to make up for last year’s missed visit, while the Panthers wanted the Florida power to play in Baltimore. An inability to resolve this difference led to the cancellation of the game. There was no dispute between the schools over competitive inequities.

DeMatha School of Hyattsville, however, did cancel a scheduled meeting with St. Frances. The reason was, at least in part, accusations by DeMatha that the Panthers attempted to recruit three of the Stags current players, VSN has learned. A source with knowledge of the situation has revealed to VSN that a member of DeMatha’s administration contacted the MIAA about dropping St. Frances Academy from its schedule and raised the recruiting concerns. The situation was made even a little more sensitive because Dr. Turner is a 1986 graduate of DeMatha and a member of the school’s Board of Governance.

On Monday of this week, at the MIAA athletic directors workshop in Easton, McDonogh School gave St. Frances and the MIAA notification that it was also dropping the Panthers in 2018. Then on Wednesday, Archbishop Spalding president Kathleen Mahar released a statement that said that the Cavaliers would not play St. Frances in 2018 for “logistical reasons,” at the same time that coaches Russell and Poggi were revealing St. Frances’ national plans.

Mahar has not clarified that statement since and Spalding, despite the statement, has not yet given formal notification to the league that it does not intend to play St. Frances.

It is unclear what is meant by “logistical” reasons. Some speculation, not verified by VSN, exists that St. Frances asked Spalding to move the game from its original date, to accommodate one of its new “national” opponents and Spalding could not accommodate the request. If this is true, unlike Mount St. Joe, Calvert Hall and McDonogh, Spalding would not be technically forfeiting to the Panthers. In fact, depending on how the circumstances are interpreted, St. Frances could actually be forfeiting to Spalding.

On Thursday, Gilman co-athletic directors Lori Bristow and Russell Wrenn issued a statement to their football families that said, “We wish the St. Frances players and coaches well as they build on the program’s and Coach Poggi’s efforts to transform the lives of young men through a nationally competitive football program. We will not compete against St. Frances in football this fall.”

Of course, Poggi was the head football coach at Gilman for 19 seasons prior to stepping down following the 2015 season.

Later the same day the statement was forwarded to the MIAA office as official notification of Gilman’s intention to not play St. Frances in 2018.

At this moment, it remains unclear which MIAA A Conference teams, if any, remain eligible for the league championship. The league administration, in a statement issued on Wednesday, said that the forfeiting schools would be charged with a loss and could not schedule a new opponent on those original game dates. However, the fact that St. Frances has since rescheduled most, if not all, of those dates, may impact that ruling.

MIAA Executive Director Lee Dove said the matter must be studied further to determine how the league would proceed.

There are still several major questions.

Will St. Frances be awarded forfeit victories from each of its MIAA opponents and be declared the 2018 league champion?

With St. Frances playing a national schedule, will the remaining MIAA A schools be allowed to play the balance of their league schedules and qualify for the league championship and/or the post-season playoffs?

Will all of the schools, including St. Frances, be declared ineligible for the league championship, leaving the title vacant in 2018?

No one really knows for sure at this point, but stay tuned as the story is constantly evolving.