Not many people know, but Maryland is home to a new national champion: the Maryland Christian Saints football team.
Often, the Baltimore sports community sees the top teams as either being the private schools of the MIAA and IAAM, or the top public schools of the MPSSAA, but hardly ever are the home-schooled teams given a thought. Maryland Christian is looking to put a stop to that.
Going a perfect 11-0 in their battles against the teams of the MIAA, WCAC and Mid-Atlantic Christian Football Conference, the Saints earned a berth to the National Homeschool Football Association’s national tournament in Panama City Beach, Fla., where they topped two more national representatives for the 2010 national title.
“I’ve learned a lot of the years of coaching, and one of the things I’ve learned is that you can’t play to not lose, you have to play to win,” Saints’ coach Tony DiPaola said. “We go out there and we’re throwing the ball when they aren’t expecting it, and we surprised both teams.
“We are just aggressive on offense, and our tough defense, it just works out well on both sides of the ball.”
The Saints had a tough road to the championship in their first ever invite to the national championship tournament, and knocked-off two- time defending champ Lighthouse Christian (MO), 38-6, and then defeated the previously undefeated North Georgia Falcons (11-1), 35-2, to win the NHFA crown.
Rushing to a 26-0 lead as early as the first quarter of their Thursday semifinal game with Lighthouse Christian, the Saint defense held a strong shutout till the last play of the game for the 38-6 final.
“They ran a similar offense and they are so used to scoring a lot of points, but our defense has been stout all year,” DiPaola said explained. “The defense was just excellent. They were bend but don’t break, and we had a lot of sacks.”
Defense has been a point of pride for the Saints all season, opening the year with three shutouts and allowing just 120 points in 13 games.
Helping lead the defense was junior Will Carlton, the 6-2, 230-pound double-digit sacking machine, and junior teammate Evan Chase, the 6-2, 220-pound middle linebacker whose father played in the NFL.
The Saints only allowed two more points in the national tournament, giving up a holding-penalty safety in their 35-2 win over the Falcons. The Falcons scored 52 points in their semifinal win.
“We can run and pass the ball, so, if a team puts eight in the box, our quarterback can audible at the line, and that really helps us out,” DiPaola said of junior quarterback Christian DiPaola, throwing nine touchdowns in the national tournament.
Catching seven of those scoring passes was senior wideout Jed Yousefi, who will be one of just eight seniors leaving the Saints. Yousefi brought in 47 receptions for more than 1,100 yards and 30 touchdowns, while returning punts and interceptions for scores, as well.
“He is one of the impact players we are losing,” DiPaola said. “Thirty touchdown receptions this year, second in state last year with 32 touchdowns, he is just explosive. He has moves on top of moves.”
Nine Players to All-Tournament Team
Every national tournament holds with it an All-Tournament team, and the Saints players made up nearly half of the 22-man roster.
Along side DiPaola, Yousefi, Carlton and Chase were juniors Johnny Lewis, Caleb Gordon, sophomores Alex Dowling and Austin Lee and senior Brian Wilt.
“These guys are truly Division I and Division II caliber prospects,” DiPaola explained, citing Carlton’s probable move as a college defensive end, Chase’s frame and Christian DiPaola’s 6-4, 212-pound body that threw 38 touchdowns to just eight interceptions.
“Chase is 6-2, 220… that’s NFL size, and Christian’s 38 touchdowns to eight interceptions, that’s big-time numbers,” adding that Christian threw for more than 2,300 yards in the year.
One player who dominated through the season without making the All-Tournament status was junior Michael James, rushing for 981 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010.
“I was tearing up when thy announced them,” DiPaola said. “The tournament director was just throwing accolades and said how our team was invited to the national championships. He said when he as in high school, he had a coach that said to leave no doubt, and that Maryland Christian left no doubt they were the number on team in the county.
“We are going to try and go down there next year. It is a long ride, that’s all I can tell ya,” he laughed.
A Conference Title with Payback
The Saints played three games in seven days to reach national champion status, including their Mid-Atlantic Christian Conference championship game the previous Saturday, topping Central Virginia, 28-20.
“It was a lot on them, but it wasn’t as tough on them as I thought it would be. We were able to sub and move players a round, so we didn’t wear them out,” said DiPaola.
But the blood really boils between Maryland Christian and Central Virginia as the two teams have been knocking heads in back-to-back conference championships.
“The emotion was very high because we beat them in the last regular season and they beat us in the championship,” DiPaola said. “This season, we beat them in the regular season and that was their only loss in the conference.
“We came into the championship game and they jumped on top with their single wing offense and took it to us in the first half.”
Central Virgina eventually led the game 20-7 in the third quarter, shuting down the Saints’ running game and forcing them to take to the air.
No Problem for Christian DiPaola, who threw for 366 yards in the comeback win.
“They were blitzing everybody and actually stopped our running game, so we had to go to the air, and we went to the air big time,” DiPaola said. “These guys have a confidence about them, a swagger about them. They know they can go up against anybody in the state and have been playing really well together, and it is like a brother hood. They have each others’ backs and they love each other.”
Saints versus the MIAA
“The season went very well for us. I guess what really put us on the map was when we went to [Archbishop] Curley and beat them, 30-22,” DiPaola said. “It was exciting for the boys, but I was very confident going into the game. I feel like we can hang with anyone in the MIAA.”
According to Curley head coach Sean Murphy, who guided his team all the way to the B Conference title game, the Saints are legit.
“Maryland Christian is actually very good. Their kids came into the game like it was the Super Bowl,” said Murphy. “They played their butts off and showed tremendous passion and heart. On that day, they were better and deserved
the victory. I emailed their staff to congratulate them because it was well deserved.”
DiPaola hopes that win and his team’s national title will change the way home school programs are viewed.
“I don’t think people realize how good the home-schooled football teams are now,” DiPaola suggested. “I would pit it out there that Central Virginia and the other two teams down [in the national tournament] would win the MIAA B conference, and we would be the middle of the pack or upper ranks of the MIAA A conference.
“Our skilled position players, I would match with anyone in the state.”