BALTIMORE -- There are better, more conventional ways to leave a favorable impression on your audience than to drop a 40-0 decision in the last game of the regular season.
But precious little about what happened during the inaugural football season at St. Frances Academy -- a private school of a little more than 300 students in East Baltimore -- was conventional. So when coach Mike Clay -- who along with his staff did not take a salary from the cash-strapped school -- gathered his players for last Friday night's postgame chat, he remained upbeat. "I hope you realize how successful you've been with a 4-4 record," Clay said. "If we come out next year with the nucleus we have coming back ... we're going to be competing for that championship."
It's ambitious talk for a coach with a .500 season barely in the rearview mirror. Considering there was no football team before June, Clay -- who joined the school after his contract was not renewed at St. Mary's (Annapolis, Md) despite winning last year's MIAA's 'B' Conference title -- had reason for optimism. "We're all out here learning something," said David Ridgeley, a junior defensive lineman. "We still have flaws, but doesn't every team?"
That the Panthers finished the season at .500 is a testament to perseverance and faith -- a commodity in great supply at St. Frances, which is located in a drug-riddled neighborhood. Founded in 1828 for the children of slaves and run by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the nation's oldest order of African-American nuns, the school added football as an alternative to the streets.
"I've seen such an increase in gang activity," said Sister John Francis Schilling, the school's president. "I just felt like the boys needed something, some discipline thing because they're looking for a family or a community."
Students need only look across Biddle Street for perspective. On the other side is the Maryland Penitentiary -- a maximum-security prison from which announcements are audible in the surrounding area. "You can't [be] opposite a jail every day with announcements going off and helicopters going around and police wailing up and down the street without seeing what difference you're making," said Laura Waterhouse, a 24-year-old teacher at St. Frances. "It's possible they will end up right across the road. It's a horrible thing to think about, but it happens and has happened."
Well-known to hoop observers for producing Devin Gray, who starred at Clemson before playing in the NBA, the school's football program aspires to follow suit. After school started, a donor gave money to dig up an area between two buildings on the school's small grounds and plant dirt and sod, giving the Panthers an on-campus practice facility. Because the area is about 40 yards long and is surrounded by concrete, room is limited for the team to work on much more than a handful of running plays and short passes. "The Oblates have a motto: 'Providence provides. Providence will provide'," said David Owens, the school's assistant athletic director. "It's a leap of faith, but it's one that will be rewarded."
On game days, Clay handled a depleted roster due to injury, behavior problems and academic ineligibility. With just 19 of the 50 players who had showed up regularly in August gone by the season's penultimate game, Clay installed the single-wing offense for their road game against the Ferris School (Wilmington, Del.). The gimmick paid off handsomely as the Panthers won 36-8, and provided momentum for last Friday's season finale against Friendship Collegiate of Washington, D.C. "Things got a little shaky, but sometimes they say, you have to get worse to get better,' said Marcus Snipes, an all-around athlete who followed Clay from St. Mary's. "I'm pretty sure that everyone is believing in [Clay's] philosophy."
Without Snipes, their best pass-catching weapon because he was suspended from school for getting in a fight, the Panthers were left to rely on the ground game for the finale. When sophomore tailback Keyson Barnes suffered a dislocated shoulder on St. Frances' first possession, the Panthers limped to the finish, advancing past midfield just twice the rest of the way.
In spite of the loss, progress was made. With only seven seniors on his roster, Clay hopes the program will improve. For now, the first season's foundation is something for Clay to build on. "This year, we're just building the relationship and the trust between the kids and our coaches," Clay said. "That's our goal: to get them to understand that this is another opportunity."