St. Frances Academy realized there would be some growing pains when it started football in 2008. As the Panthers prepare for their third campaign, it’s basically back to ground zero.

Joseph Garner is the new person in charge of the fledging program. A former assistant at McDaniel College, Garner has the challenge of putting St. Frances football on solid footing.

“It’s been slow and steady,” said Garner standing on a field at Druid Hill Park where the team practices. “A lot of these young men have no idea what it’s like to go through a football camp. I don’t want to speak badly on what went down last year.”

Mike Clay, the program’s first coach who previously guided St. Mary’s to a MIAA B Conference championship, resigned with three games remaining last season. The Panthers finished 2-9 with seven straight losses. More than a dozen players transferred.

“The team was built around transfers,” said St. Frances senior two-way linemen Matt Cole. “We’re rebuilding with a new coach, a new program and starting with a lot of freshman. It’s a rebuilding process.”

It was evident during Wednesday’s afternoon practice under a light rain. Sixteen players were in uniform as Garner ran the squad through a series of conditioning drills. He said changing the culture is the first piece.

“We have low numbers, we haven’t had a day with everybody here,” said Garner. “They’re not used to being held accountable for showing up to practice.

The guys who’ve been here are here for us and St. Frances. They want to get better. They are tired of losing.”

Garner sees potential with three freshmen slated to start in 2010. The Panthers’ multi-option offense will be keyed by junior Darius Lee, senior Derrick Johnson, sophomore running back Tariq Abdul and senior quarterback Wayne Harris.

Cole and Bernard Whitaker will anchor both sides of the line with Lee, Harris and Justin Campbell in the defensive secondary. Garner said he’ll likely use two substitutes on each side.

matt cole, darius lee, tariq abdul“We’re iron man football this year,” he said.

Garner said he wanted the opportunity to lead a program after spending the prior two seasons as defensive backs coach at McDaniel. A graduate of Friends School and Morgan State University, Garner was an assistant to Roger Wrenn at Patterson and Poly.

“He’s fixed everything up,” said Lee. “He’s more about grades than football.”

The repair project is just beginning for Garner at St. Frances where basketball has long garnered the attention.

“I’m riding the bus with my shoulder pads in my hands and people see St. Frances and they say ‘St. Frances got a football team?,’” said Abdul. “The only way to change attitudes is to win games.”