The Falcons and Bruins have experienced the highs and lows of high school football in recent seasons, and the quest for both schools in 2019 is to take the next steps of progress. In an expanded playoff field — and a regular season minus a rivalry showdown — what can each team do to move forward? Story and photos by Colin Murphy
Supporters of Severna Park and Broadneck football always look to the schedule for the date of the rivalry matchup. Families, students, even casual fans — it’s hard to resist the draw of a Falcons-Bruins clash on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon.
So anyone who looks at the 2019 schedule will see a glaring omission: there’s no Severna Park-Broadneck football game.
The rivalry matchup was a casualty of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Board of Control’s vote in April to reduce the regular season from 10 games to nine. The statewide change was made to accommodate an expanded playoff field, which will now include eight teams per region, up from four, for a 32-team tournament in each classification, up from 16.
After the state’s vote, teams around the state had to eliminate a game from the schedule. Anne Arundel County’s football programs worked together to find an appropriate week, taking into account the scheduling logistics of immutable out-of-county games that are scheduled in two-year commitments. Ultimately, a random drawing was employed with two possible weeks on the chopping block, and the week containing the Severna Park-Broadneck matchup drew the short straw. The same week contained the Arundel-Meade game; the Wildcats and Mustangs will not play their storied rivalry game, the winner of which holds onto the prized Mears Cup.
The 2019-2020 school year is the first of a two-year scheduling window with out-of-county opponents. The possibility exists for the county to bring back the Severna Park-Broadneck game beginning in the 2021 season. (Notably, the gate revenue of the lost games will be offset by the gate revenue of Week 1 of the playoffs, which will be distributed at the district level, not sent to state coffers).
Aside from the loss of the rivalry game, the expanded playoff field elicits further opinions. Whereas Northeast and Chesapeake, for example, believe the expanded playoff field dilutes their playoff achievements of last season (not to mention that the 2019 ‘Dena Bowl was preserved in the shortened regular season), coaches are warming to the idea of having more teams in the tournament fold.
Severna Park first-year head coach Mike Wright, who coached the JV team for the last seven years prior to replacing Will Bell as the varsity coach this season, had his reservations initially, especially since the JV programs simply lost a game in the new format.
But he sees the appeal, too.
“My first thought is I hate losing that game,” said Wright. “From the varsity standpoint though, you can’t look at it as losing a game — you’re gaining an opportunity. The goal is playoffs. This team hasn’t had better than a .500 season since 2006 or 2007. So the goal here would be a winning season and a playoff berth. I’d really want to go 6-3 or better and get a playoff berth.”
At Broadneck, head coach Rob Harris went through a similar reckoning and acceptance, and he noted another wrinkle to the change: after the first two rounds of the playoffs, teams will be re-seeded based on regular season results. What was formerly the region final will now be termed the state quarterfinal and will no longer be geographically determined. In theory, teams from the same county could meet in the state semifinals or even the state final.
“I don’t like that [we don’t play Severna Park], but we’re going to be OK — we’re going to get a 10th game,” said Harris. “It’s kind of neat, because they’re going to reshuffle it after the first two [playoff rounds], which normally would be the region final, so it’ll be a nice little mix if you get those two wins, you get to play somebody else, so there’s a part of me that thinks it’s going to be really cool. There’s nothing wrong with having four more teams in the region playoffs. When do the kids have the most fun? They have the most fun in the playoffs.”
More teams will be in contention for a berth deeper into the season, raising the stakes for each game in late October and early November. Teams that suffer early injuries or play inconsistently in September will have a chance to peak at the right time and be playing their best football in a Week 10 playoff game instead of playing their best when they’re out of contention for a berth.
Severna Park and Broadneck will navigate these realities as part of the 11-team 4A East region along with Annapolis, Old Mill, Arundel, Glen Burnie, Meade, North County, South River, Howard and Leonardtown. Eight of those teams will make the playoffs.
And, maybe rivalry fans will get their game after all. Severna Park went 5-5 in the regular season last fall. Broadneck went 10-0. If the teams play similarly this year, a first-round playoff matchup could be in the cards — football gods willing.
Either way, both Severna Park and Broadneck have plans for 2019, and it all begins with kickoff on September 6.
The Falcons’ quest is to show the county that the program’s recent success is no fluke. Under Bell last season, Severna Park went 5-5, up from 1-9 in 2017, and notched a memorable win at Old Mill in September along with a victory over Meade and a win over 3A playoff team Northeast.
Their charge boils down to the slogan on the back of their practice shirts: “PROVE THEM WRONG.”
Who’s the them, and what will be proven?
Senior quarterback Casey Fox said the team is aware of the perception of Severna Park football around the county, but it doesn’t define this group.
“I think we’re ready to come out and show everyone we’re ready to win,” said Fox. “Everyone who takes us for granted or takes us lightly.”
To do that, Wright will rely on a group he is familiar with, having coached many of them through the JV ranks. Twenty-five seniors and 27 juniors, as well as four sophomores and one freshman, comprise the team, and Wright sees several areas of strength.
Fox is the most experienced quarterback on the squad and likely holds the inside track on retaining the role, though junior Pat Fitzgerald and freshman Seamus Patenaude have produced internal competition.
“We originally had six or seven kids vying for the job at the beginning of camp, and it’s now gotten down to basically three,” said Wright. “On any given week, one of them looks like he could be the guy. Performance-wise, they’ve all shown they’re able.”
Wylen Tompkins and Demetrius Powell are a dynamic-duo pairing who will share workload and carries at running back, and Wright sees tight end Craig Johnson and wide receiver Josh Giebels contributing to the passing game. The majority of the offensive linemen are juniors, which bodes well for a two-year window of growth.
On the defensive side, Wright believes the team is “ahead of the curve.” Junior Jordan Robinson is a strong presence on the defensive line, and classmate Kaleb Blackwell will notch his share of sacks and tackles at defensive end. Pat Fenn is a massive presence in the middle of the field at middle linebacker, and he’ll be helped by defensive backs Corey Bodnar and Colin Shadowens. Sophomore James Henson earned a spot on the varsity roster with speed and tenacity to cover on the outside at cornerback.
Shadowens, a Navy lacrosse commit, said the defense has gelled quickly.
“With the defense, I’m confident and excited,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of big guys ready to hit hard. I think it’s the strongest part of our team. The defense is really close together as a unit, and we’re ready to play.”
Wright isn’t putting any arbitrary caps on the team’s aspirations, even mentioning the need to christen the new stadium field.
“The sky’s the limit,” said Wright. “We’d love to have a home playoff game. That would be amazing. I think the last playoff game here was 2004 or 2005 against River Hill High School in the old stadium. That would be amazing to have this class that has worked so hard and gone through this process to have a home playoff game.”
For now, the Falcons are ready for the immediate challenges ahead. Severna Park hosts North County in Week 1 on September 6 and travels to Chesapeake and Arundel before coming home for Meade and Old Mill. The Falcons close with South River, Glen Burnie, Annapolis and Southern.
“We have high confidence, and we want to see how we perform,” said Fenn. “We’re ready to get tested [in preseason scrimmages] and see how we do against a real team in a real game situation.”
The Bruins are no strangers to success. Entering his ninth season as head coach, Harris is 69-21 overall and has won at least eight games every year since 2012.
But Broadneck has endured its disappointments, too. A quick rundown: Last year, the Bruins went 10-0 in the regular season only to be upset by South River in the opening round of the region playoffs. In 2017, the Bruins went undefeated in the regular season and defeated Meade in the first round but fell to a very good North Point team to finish 11-1. In 2016, the Bruins upset an undefeated Old Mill team in the first round of the playoffs, then fell to Annapolis. In 2015, Broadneck went 8-2 in the regular season, then defeated both Old Mill and North Point in the playoffs to make the state tournament, ultimately falling to Howard to finish 10-3.
The breakthrough to the state final has remained elusive. The Bruins have been close, at times agonizingly so. The wounds, particularly from last season, haven’t healed.
“I’m not going to lie: it’s tough,” said Harris of last year’s playoff ouster against South River. “Last year was heartbreaking. No ifs, ands or buts about it. We were expecting to play North Point and have another battle.”
Everyone with championship aspirations has to play the best competition come playoff time, and Harris knows only one team ultimately has everything fall into place.
“When you get to the playoffs, it’s very tough,” he said. “Weather’s changing, there’s more distractions. Sometimes you need to have everything kind of line up. In 2015, things lined up, our team was tough, mentally tough, physically tough, and that helped us a lot.”
Fortunately, the Bruins bring a talented group to compete in 2019. Returning for his second season is sophomore quarterback Josh Ehrlich, who Harris expects to “take that jump.” Offensive linemen Ethan Forman and Ray Pioli will protect Ehrlich and running back/receiver Andre Woods, who gained over 1,000 total yards last season and figures to exceed those numbers in 2019.
Defensively, linebackers Josh Cain and Thomas Coble and free safety Brendan Kennedy all return as starters and will fortify a group collectively short on experience but long on ability and potential.
Ehrlich believes the offense is ahead of where they were this time last year, ready to face a tough Prince George’s County opponent in Potomac High School in Week 1.
“We’re confident,” said Ehrlich. “So far we’re moving a lot faster than we did last year. We’ll be ready for Week 1 for sure. We’ve been watching a lot of Potomac’s film, and we should get a win Week 1.”
Ehrlich was also a member of the Bruins’ varsity basketball team that made it all the way to the state final last season, an experience he agreed can’t hurt his team’s ambitions on the football field.
“Certainly playing in that big of a game at Maryland is really cool, and it kind of gets you used to playing in a state championship,” he said. “It all matters if we go to the state championship in football because that would be awesome and everyone would show up. We’re game by game now, focusing on Potomac, but certainly the goal is a state championship.”
Woods said they learned from last season to maintain a consistent mentality when experiencing success, especially once it’s playoff time.
“We’ve got to be humble and just not be cocky,” said Woods. “You go 10-0, you think, ‘Yeah,’ but we’ve got to stay humble.”
With six returning starters among 15 seniors and 26 juniors, the Bruins have a solid core and a large junior class to rely on this season and beyond. Like the players, Harris hopes to advance as deep into the playoffs as possible, and he likes what he sees from his team in the early going.
“To break through, we just have to be consistent, keep improving, and I think we will,” he said. “That’s our goal. We’re young this year, but we feel pretty good about our group.
“We’ll see what happens.”