The Chesapeake and Northeast football teams produced historically good seasons in 2018, exceeded the hype of their own rivalry in not one but two classic showdowns, and made all of Pasadena and Anne Arundel County proud with excellent play throughout the fall and into November. What will they do for an encore?
Cleats and helmets made their way to turf fields in Pasadena on August 14 as the Chesapeake and Northeast football teams joined the rest of Anne Arundel County for the first day of fall practices. The successes of last year are still fresh — Northeast went 7-4, defeated Chesapeake in the ‘Dena Bowl and made the playoffs; Chesapeake had the school’s best season ever, notched playoff wins over Northeast and J.M. Bennett and won the region championship in finishing 9-4 overall. Now, the Eagles and Cougars are both looking to continue the upward arc their respective programs have taken in recent years.
They, along with all the football programs in the county and state, will navigate a significant change this year: in April, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Board of Control voted to reduce the state’s high school football regular season by one game, from 10 to nine. The move to shorten the regular season comes with the accompanying change of expanding the playoff field from four to eight teams per region and adding a week to the now-32-team playoff bracket.
Chesapeake’s and Northeast’s seasons will count toward contention in the newly realigned 3A South, a 10-team region that includes Huntingtown and Northern (Calvert County), North Point and St. Charles (Charles County), Oxon Hill (Prince George’s County), Chopticon and Great Mills (St. Mary’s County) and Bennett (Wicomico County). North Point made the state final as a 4A school last year.
Eight of the 10 programs in the 3A South will make the playoffs, making it entirely possible that a team with a sub-.500 record will be in the playoff field. The Cougars and Eagles, fresh off seasons in which they earned spots in a much more competitive four-team playoff field, aren’t thrilled about the change, a common sentiment among Anne Arundel County coaches, who collectively voted initially to oppose the change.
“I particularly don’t like it,” said Northeast head coach Brian Baublitz. “I believe that eight teams in the playoffs, you’re probably going to have a team with [three or four wins] make the playoffs. But it does give more teams the opportunity to get that playoff atmosphere, playoff feel. But I prefer actually earning it. With the four playoff positions, you actually had to earn a playoff spot.”
Chesapeake coach Rob Elliott concurred, adding the point that the JV programs lose a game, with nothing to play for after Week 9 — no county, district or state crown, and no playoffs.
“I’m not a fan,” said Elliott. “To me, this school had never been to the playoffs, and then three of the last four years we’ve been to the playoffs. It was a huge accomplishment. If we go 3-6 and get in as an eight seed, that’s not an accomplishment to me. I don’t like the fact that from the JV standpoint, we lost a JV game in this structure. I’m just not a fan of, ‘Everybody gets a trophy,’ and that’s what this feels like.”
Supporters of the change might say that it gives more kids a playoff experience, as football is still the only sport in the state where not every team makes the postseason. Similarly, more teams will be in contention in the second half of the regular season, making it possible for teams to play their best football down the stretch and peak at the right time — a goal of every team and coach — and possibly come away with a playoff upset.
There might not be a clean apples-to-apples, year-over-year way for casual fans to compare playoff teams from 2018 and 2019, but the Cougars and Eagles will always be able to say they made the field when it was twice as exclusive; their respective playoff berths last year in four-team brackets remain as standalone accomplishments.
Besides — they’ve got bigger goals in 2019.
The Eagles believe they have the depth and skill to fly even higher this fall. For starters, Northeast had 90 kids come to tryouts, an increase for the third straight year.
Now in his fourth year as head coach, Baublitz has seniors who began with him at the helm when they were freshmen.
“So we can’t blame anything on anyone else,” Baublitz said with a laugh. “These are all our kids now.”
What is not a joke, however, is the talent level the Eagles have entering the season.
Northeast is thin on seniors but loaded with a skilled junior class, giving the program a two-year window to compete at a high level.
Leading the way is junior Riley Pitt, who enters camp as the team’s starting quarterback after taking over that role midway through his freshman season in 2017.
No longer the precocious up-and-comer, Pitt believes the team’s growth bodes well for its continued progress.
“We’re expecting to win this year,” said Pitt. “Just like last year, but hopefully do better. We’ve got a lot of talent. We lost a few good people from last year, but I think we’ll be all right. We worked out a lot in the summer. A lot of conditioning, and the coaches really pushed us.”
Pitt will have help at the skill positions. Junior Jayden Roberts comes in at wingback to replace the speedy Josh Krcik, and Roberts will see plenty of carries. At 6-foot-2, junior Mason Knipe provides speed and size at receiver. Junior Stephen Haley and senior Brandon Baublitz, nephew to his head coach, are strongholds on the offensive line.
Roberts was one of 11 Eagles to make the team’s 13,000-yard club this summer by totaling up a series of daily timed runs. Haley conceded that Brandon Baublitz might be a little stronger than him for now — Baublitz noted he put up 21 bench-press reps of 185 pounds recently — and Baublitz said the team is ready to add to its recent success.
“We’re coming back hitting harder than last time,” Brandon Baublitz said. “I just think we’re even more tight-knit this year, more of a family, so we can really get it done this year.”
Northeast will have to produce a replacement for the nearly 600 combined pounds of graduated defensive linemen Matt Wukitch and Aiden Barnhart, but they will play to their strengths elsewhere. A potential X-factor on the early roster is Kayla Alexander, a junior attempting to become the team’s lone female player. Alexander is a soccer standout who plays year-round for her club team, preventing her from taking on the commitment of playing for the Lady Eagles soccer team in the fall. However, while just having fun with her cousin and brother in July, she discovered she can ping footballs through the uprights from up to 35 yards out. She hopes to do so on Friday nights for the Eagles.
“They noticed I was doing really good, and they were like, ‘Kayla, you should seriously try out,’” said Alexander. “I talked to some of the guys on the team I know, and they were like, ‘You should do it.’ Me and my dad came to the field to kick, it was just my second time, and the football team asked me to come kick with them. So it’s pretty exciting stuff.”
The Eagles have other reasons to be excited. Coach Baublitz decried the schedule reduction, but the matchup they lost in the shuffle was against Meade. The Eagles don’t play the Mustangs or traditional powers Arundel and Broadneck, a silver lining not lost on coach Baublitz.
“The football gods have been kind to us this year,” said Baublitz. “I was telling the kids this morning when we addressed them for the first time, this is the first year I can honestly say, I go down every game and we have an opportunity to win every game,” said Baublitz. “We couldn’t tell our kids that in previous years, because there was legitimately some games where we were not going to be able to compete. That is not the case this year. And that’s not to say we don’t play good football teams. We do have Old Mill, which is going to be a battle. We put Dover (Delaware) on our schedule [in Week 3].”
The Eagles open with Mount Hebron on September 6 and follow with North County, Dover, Glen Burnie, Eastern Tech, Annapolis, Old Mill, Southern and Chesapeake.
Never one to shy away from lofty goals, Baublitz said the 2019 squad will continue to advance toward the Eagles’ ultimate aim.
“Our expectations and our goal is always going to be the same: win a state championship,” he said. “That’s ultimately what we want to do. What we explained to this senior class is, last year’s senior class set an unprecedented bar here at Northeast with seven victories, and we have no intentions of going backward.”
The Cougar community was treated to an all-time squad in 2018 as the team notched the first playoff victories in program history and the first region championship, making it all the way to the state tournament before bowing out to Linganore in the state semifinals and finishing 9-4 overall. The gym on campus now has a football banner for the first time.
Elliott, entering his ninth year leading Chesapeake, has overseen a program overhaul that has yielded success and consistency throughout his tenure. As a result, despite turnover from year to year, including this season, when Chesapeake will look to replace a range of players at important positions, the Cougars stay confident.
“I think what I’ve learned here is that every year is just a new year,” said Elliott. “We’ve kind of got our program built to where we have, on a normal year, 17-25 seniors every year. Getting our classes to be that size, every year is a little bit of an adjustment. Last year, our O-line was all new. This year, our three top receivers graduated, our quarterback graduated. Four of the five O-linemen graduated. We’ve got a good bit back on defense. Secondary is going to be new. So it’s another year where we’re rebuilding in certain spots, and each year we seem to have specific target areas where we have to rebuild.
“The goal is to make the playoffs and have a winning record,” Elliott said, “and we’re at the point where that’s our goal every year.”
There are three players on the quarterback depth chart for the Cougars this August, all of whom will look to fill the void left by accomplished graduate Dylan Young. Senior Tyler Clark probably has the inside track on the starting quarterback spot based on his experience, while juniors Jordan Ambrose and Nate Rosado will be ready to take over signal-calling if necessary. In the backfield, the Cougars won’t be short on options: Jaylen Richardson got some carries last year and returns as the primary carrier as a senior, while Bradly Vest and Raphial Smith will also be in the backfield mix. Jullian Sutton should play big role as fullback, a spot that will be supplemented by Devin Forrester, Calvin Padden and Logan Peapos. Victor Listorti could also see time at tailback.
There are big holes to fill at receiver, where Chesapeake’s top three pass-catchers from a season ago will all be on college rosters this fall: Russell Tongue at Gannon University, Hunter Davis at Salisbury and Colton Spangler at Maryland.
Fortunately, the Cougars have size at receiver in Alonzo Wilkes, the 6-foot-6 senior who is also a force for the Chesapeake basketball team. Brian Plummer will provide blocking and pass-catching at tight end.
Chesapeake has always buttered its bread on the offensive line, where Chris Casalino and Brent Vogt will look to clear way for the Cougar offense.
Casalino said the linemen pride themselves on technique and will make up for any size disparity it faces with solid fundamentals.
“We need to work hard, and hopefully we’ll do better than last year,” said Casalino. “This year we’re looking a little smaller than usual, so we have to stick to the technique and work hard. But, [this summer] we worked out four days a week, lifting, weight room and field work.”
On defense, Sutton, Guy Wagner and Zach Baumann will play important roles on the line, with Nathaniel Enoch coming off the edge as a pass-rushing defensive end. Senior Dan Rausch brings speed, experience and tenacity as an outside linebacker.
“We did a lot of seven-on-sevens this summer, placed third in the tournament at Snow Hill outside Ocean City, mainly receivers and defensive backs, so we got a lot of work in with the skills players,” said Rausch. “We have a lot of potential talent on the team. If we work hard and focus on what we can do well, we’ll be successful. Our goal is to get further than last year.”
The confidence is admirable, especially when they know that getting results won’t come easy. Chesapeake suffered the opposite fate as Northeast in the schedule change; the Cougars sacrificed a winnable matchup (North County) but still have to play Meade, Arundel and Broadneck. Chesapeake plays on the road in the first two weeks at Largo and Randallstown before coming home to host Severna Park in its home opener on September 20. The Cougars travel to Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference opponent St. Paul’s in Week 4 before playing Arundel, Broadneck, Southern, Meade and Northeast.
Not having to play Old Mill is little consolation with 4A behemoths Broadneck and Arundel on the schedule and winnable matchups with North County and Glen Burnie noticeably absent.
The Cougars aren’t complaining. They have their standards, and they look forward to kicking off another successful campaign.
“The goal is to make the playoffs, have a winning record, not back into the playoffs,” said Elliott. “And once we get to the playoffs, see if we can do some damage.”