Every other year, Maryland public high school classifications are re-established based on school enrollment. The Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference uses that opportunity to adjust its own two-tiered football conference, not on enrollment, but rather on performance.
The two teams with the worst records in the previous two years of competition from the Chesapeake Division switch places with the top two teams from the Susquehanna Division. This season, Edgewood and Rising Sun are on the way down, while Aberdeen and Havre de Grace are moving up.
The biannual conference reshuffling always leads to renewed rivalries and questions as to how the new division members will factor in the title chase. After all, this has been the most balanced conference in Maryland, with all eight members of the current Chesapeake Division winning a division or county title in the past 10 years.
The Chesapeake Division figures to remain a three-team race among Joppatowne, North Harford (Pylesville) and Fallston. The Susquehanna Division is wide open, with Bohemia Manor (Chesapeake City) the early favorite, and Edgewood and Patterson Mill figuring to contend.
Joppatowne is a perennial playoff contender but returns only two offensive and five defensive starters from 2008's Class 1A state semifinalist squad. The team features a pair of defensive standouts in safety Dominic Harper and linebacker Jake McGinnis. Both received small-school all-state honors in 2008. Harper also projects as the starting quarterback. David Miller, who earned first-team all-county honors as a tackle and defensive end, is the anchor on the line. The Mariners did suffer an out-of-season loss when a projected starting running back who received all-state mention last season was ruled academically ineligible, coach Bill Waibel said. Look for tailback Chris Wright and fullback Joel Scott to inherit the bulk of the running duties in Joppatowne's multiple I offense.
With 16 returning starters, including nine on offense, North Harford is considered not only a Chesapeake Division front-runner but also a serious challenger in the Class 3A North Region. The Hawks do not appear to have a weak link, despite coming off a 4-6 season. The team has good size on the line with Ryan Burghauser (6-foot-4, 215 pounds), Vince Colotta (6-0, 220), Maik Ferrante (6-2, 250) and Matt Vocke (6-2, 245). The skill returns include quarterback Cody Turner and top receiver Brandon Pugh. Place-kicker Tyler Ruark has placed first or second at every kicking camp he has attended this summer. On defense, linebacker Nate Belak is receiving college interest, and defensive back Josh Barden returns following an all-county season in 2008.
After one playoff appearance, Fallston wants more. The Cougars had been the heartbreak program of Harford County during Dave Cesky's 30 years as coach until Fallston reached the playoffs for the first time last fall. Not only did Fallston make the playoffs, but it also won its first-round game before losing in the region final. "It's one of the best things that's ever happened to the program," said Cesky, who once had a 9-1 team come up short of qualifying for the playoffs. "There's a lot of motivation to get back to the playoffs. There's a lot of talk in school, and there are a lot of new kids out for football." Fallston's strength will be its massive offensive line with Alex Fisher (6-4, 365), Daequan Lovick (6-0, 275), Darrius Berry (6-0, 255) and Iiley Thompson (6-0, 245). Receiver/defensive back Michael Montgomery figures to be a key two-way starter.
After years of playing league also-ran, C. M. Wright (Bel Air) could very well be back in the league title chase. Second-year coach Dave Yohn brings back 10 starters from last year's squad, including first-team all-league honoree Austen West at receiver and defensive back, and 6-3, 180-pound quarterback Shane Halsey. Chris Hunton gives the offense added punch since he converted two game-winning field goals as a junior last season.
Aberdeen is hoping to make an immediate impact now that the program has returned to the Chesapeake Division. The Eagles return nine defensive starters from last year's 5-5 squad. The top defensive returner is 6-1, 205-pound linebacker Brian Colvin. Aberdeen figures to have a strong ground game with running backs Kenard Squirrel and Lazarus Turner in the backfield. While coach John Siemsen said weight room turnout has been high, the program suffered a slight setback with staff turnover in the offseason.
Elkton is a big question mark this season as this perennial playoff contender undergoes a coaching change. Bill Russell, who turned the Golden Elks' program into a consistent playoff squad highlighted by a state title in 2002, has retired. Bart Funke steps in but had limited contact with and knowledge of the varsity players since he was with the junior varsity staff. Elkton does return one of the state's top punters in Jeff Ondish.
Havre de Grace has been a consistent playoff contender in recent seasons, but it might be more of a struggle in 2009. Although the Warriors are a 1A program, their placement in the Chesapeake Division will give them a steady diet of Class 2A and 3A opponents. Fortunately for Havre de Grace, the 1A East region can be forgiving, and a five-win season might be good enough for a postseason berth. The key returnee for Havre de Grace is sophomore quarterback Darin Washington, who passed for nearly 1,110 yards as a freshman to earn all-county honors.
Bel Air is back on the road, yet again. For the third straight year, the Bobcats will not have a home game as renovations continue at Bel Air. Marc Alegi, in his second season as coach, has six offensive starters returning, which should help the squad that averaged only 9.7 points per game in 2008. Among the returners are quarterback Jay Butler, and running backs Nick Malozi and Tom Kuegler. "We do not have the size or speed of most schools in our county," Alegi said. "What we do have are kids who will do what is best for the team and not worry about their own personal statistics."
With four first-team all-county players returning, Bohemia Manor is the early favorite in the Susquehanna Division. Although the team must replace a pair of talented receivers who graduated, the Eagles bring back all-county performers quarterback Madison Neddo (who passed for 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2008) and running back Matt White (who averaged more than 6 yards per carry last season). White doubles as a linebacker to anchor the defense, which is Bohemia Manor's strength. Linebackers White, Conor Countryman and Kyle Thompson were all-county players in 2008 as Bohemia Manor reached the Class 1A East region playoffs.
Like Bel Air, Edgewood will be a road warrior in 2009. While completion of the new high school is expected by September, chances are the athletic facility will not be ready, forcing Edgewood to play all 10 games on the road this season. The good news, however, is that Edgewood is moving down to the Susquehanna Division, where it will face more 1A schools instead of the 2A and 3A teams that have handed the Rams 13 defeats in the past two years. Edgewood could factor into the Susquehanna Division title race with 10 returning starters. The team's strength will be its line play, with seniors Ryan Wienhold and Tim Polack. Coach Fred Meyers said he did not realize the effect of a season on the road until this past year. "It's been hard on the kids, hard on recruiting [kids from other sports to play football at Edgewood]," he said. "We always drew big crowds [at home games], and that got kids excited to play football." The new Edgewood school is located on the land where the previous stadium existed. "We had a nice home field," Meyers said. "It's heartbreaking. The stadium was built by the community with community money. It was a very good stadium, and I miss it."
Patterson Mill (Bel Air) could be this season's sleeping giant. The first-year varsity program went 2-8 in 2008 without a senior class, and the team's projected starting quarterback was lost to a season-ending injury on the second series of the second game of the year. Adam LaFleur, a 6-1, 195-pound senior quarterback, is expected to return this season and run Patterson Mill's spread offense. Anthony Jones, who rushed for 1,075 yards, and receiver Dylan Burke, who had 61 catches, both return, as do all 11 starters on both sides of the ball.
Rising Sun had a rare down season in 2008, going 3-7. With all its skill players returning and the program being sent back to the Susquehanna Division, coach Clem Vaughan is expecting a much stronger showing in 2009. Running backs Jason Robinson and Bryant Hurley project as the top ball carriers, while Haden Roberts returns at quarterback. Vaughan said his only concern is on the line, where Rising Sun graduated every starter on both sides of the ball, except Andrew Branski.
It will be a rebuilding season for Harford Tech (Bel Air), which returns only three starters from 2008's 6-4 team. "This is a very young team," coach Mike Woods said. "We graduated our biggest class ever -- 19 players." Despite the winning season in 2008, Harford Tech missed out on the playoffs in a strong 1A East region. This season's team will turn to quarterback Devonte Bundley to lead the offense.
Perryville is undergoing yet another change following a 4-6 season. Tim Myers is the new coach, marking Perryville's fourth coach in seven seasons. Myers expects fewer than five returning starters from the 2008 team.
North East-Cecil has won only three games over the past two seasons. In addition, the team graduated its three all-county performers. One positive sign, however, is that a pair of North East players attended the Maryland Junior Combine, where college hopefuls go for a day of training and testing. This marks the first time in at least three years North East has been represented at the event.
Sheldon Shealer has covered high school football in Maryland for more than 20 years. He can be reached at Sheldon.Shealer@espn.com .