ATLANTA — For the three years Micah Kiser played varsity football at Gilman School in Baltimore, the Greyhounds and Calvert Hall were two of the best teams in the state and played a series of instant-classics, most memorably a 2011 MIAA championship that went to double overtime.
The Cardinals got the best of Gilman in 2010 by completing a 19-point comeback with a scoop-and-score on a high snap on a punt to steal an upset win, and Gilman capped a two-game sweep the next year by batting down a Calvert Hall two-point conversion attempt to secure its second title of a three-championship, four-year run.
About six years after he graduated, Kiser is preparing for Super Bowl LIII with the Los Angeles Rams, while the MIAA is fractured to the degree that it canceled the 2018 playoffs. St. Frances Academy’s emergence as not only a local powerhouse, but one of the best teams in the nation, has caused the rest of the league to bow out of playing them.
Most of the four Maryland high school products playing in Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Rams and New England Patriots were in school less than a decade ago, but were competing in a high school football landscape that looks much different than today’s, most notably for Kiser and the Baltimore private schools.
“Playing Baltimore sports when I was there, we had the best athletes in any sport,” Kiser said. “For them to kind of shy away from competition the way they did was kind of disappointing to me. A lot of guys can play college ball at Mount Saint Joseph. At McDonough. And for them to kind of shy away from playing the team, I wouldn’t have done that. I didn’t like it.”
Many of those schools, however, would argue St. Frances is a different program than anything that came before it. The change began in 2016, when the Gilman coaching staff led by Biff Poggi had a falling out with school administration and elected to move en masse to the previously lowly St. Frances.
Kiser still harbors some resentment toward his alma mater for what he feels was an ousting of coaches he credits with helping turn him into an NFL-caliber player.
“I think Gilman kind of dropped the ball,” Kiser said. “There was a misconception that there was a bunch of recruited players, when that wasn’t the case. … Seeing what they did with the program was disappointing.”
Even after Kiser’s former coaches moved to St. Frances, though, they weren’t expecting the response that came from the rest of the league, nor the headlines that followed. After going undefeated in the MIAA in 2016, the Panthers kicked it up a notch in 2017, outscoring their league opponents by a combined score of 343-50 and finishing the season as a consensus top-five team in the nation.
Then, beginning around Memorial Day last year, Baltimore teams began dropping off St. Frances’ schedule, most citing safety concerns. With the notion of playing a regular schedule suddenly out the window, head coach Henry Russell and the rest of his staff scrambled to craft a schedule on par with their national standing, filled with the high school football elite.
“The timing of it really caught us off guard,” Russell said. “From that point on, it was really just trying to get a schedule and give our kids an opportunity to have a football season.”
Before the season, the MIAA announced St. Frances as champion and said there would be no playoffs in 2018. St. Frances went undefeated against a schedule that included no Baltimore teams and only one Maryland team but still wasn’t up to its caliber. The Panthers’ lowest margin of victory was 29 points.
“I’m sure some of the teams [like] Spaulding and St. Joe would’ve liked an opportunity to play us,” Russell said. “It just didn’t work out.”
Controversy remains on both sides. St. Frances detractors say Poggi’s staff has turned St. Frances into a football factory, not a school. Its supporters say some of the critiques are racially motivated, pointing out that nobody had complaints when Poggi was leading Gilman — a whiter, wealthier school located much further from inner-city Baltimore — to MIAA domination.
But whatever the reasons, the result is a league that is a shell of its former self. And to some third-parties like legendary Good Counsel head coach Bob Milloy, who retired in 2017, that is something to mourn.
“They don’t have the local league championship and rivalries, because nobody will play them,” Milloy told Povich Center/Capital News Service. “That’s a drawback, I think. That’s a part of high school football. … But they have a goal, which is to be No. 1 in the country. And hey, that’s what they want to do, that’s fine. It’s good for some kids, it’s not good for all the kids.”
Russell tries not to dwell on what’s missing from the St. Frances schedule, instead focusing on the impressive teams the Panthers will play, like the vaunted IMG Academy.
“Our kids have a unique opportunity to play some of the nation’s best. We’re playing IMG next year in the middle of October, which wouldn’t have happened if we were still playing the Baltimore schools,” Russell said. “It’s pretty exciting stuff for our kids. They’ve gotten a lot of support from all sorts of people in the community, and I think they like representing Baltimore and Maryland on a national scale.”
Rams defensive back Blake Countess, who transferred from Gilman to Good Counsel for his final two years of high school, agreed with many of Milloy’s thoughts about the loss of the local schedule.
But he also accurately points out that St. Frances is merely following a blueprint crafted by other schools like IMG Academy.
“That’s the culture of high school football now. These coaches, they get together and they’re running it kind of like a prep school [or] college,” said Countess, who graduated in 2011. “A lot of times it’s for the better of the player, but I think it takes away a little bit from the competition. … But definitely, in my opinion, if you can go to private school, you go.”
According to most, the gap between private schools — especially those in the powerful WCAC in the Washington D.C. area — and public schools has only widened in recent years.
As recently as 2015, the final Washington Post football rankings of the year had eight public schools in the top 10. Last year, private schools had four of the top-five and six of the top 10.
“You can’t compare [public and private],” said Bryan Pierre, longtime coach of Northwestern High School, a public school in Hyattsville, Maryland, where Rams safety John Johnson graduated from in 2013. “We don’t try to compare nor try to compete. At a public school, you just have the kids that are in your neighborhood.”
There are still some public school powerhouses in the area, notably Wise (Upper Marlboro) and Quince Orchard (Gaithersburg), but the general consensus is that the difference between the haves and have nots has never been greater.
That’s true for the gulf between public and private schools, and also between most private schools and the truly elite, like St. Frances. And while that growing disparity leads to its fair share of skepticism and bitterness, with four Maryland high school products in the Super Bowl coming from a variety of backgrounds and places, the players and coaches involved view this moment as a time to celebrate the football talent in the area rather than begrudge anybody else their success.
“The high school football game is on a national stage. ESPN has taken us to new realms,” Pierre said. “Gonzaga and St. John’s and DeMatha during this year were in the top 25 in the national rankings. That’s huge for our area. … I’m not upset because it’s another Maryland football team on a national stage. I’m rooting for that. I want to see Maryland kids do great.”
James Crabtree-Hannigan is a senior in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, covering the Super Bowl for the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism.