Words: Caleb McClatchey
It all began on a chilly November evening five years ago. Students filed out of Angelo Fortunato Memorial Stadium, celebrating Centennial’s 59-13 win over Hammond to close out the regular season. Seniors on the team like Chase Conley couldn’t help but feel bittersweet despite the blowout win; it was the last time they would put on a uniform and take the field as Eagles. They would finish their careers as members of one of the best Centennial football teams in recent memory, finishing with a 7-3 record for a program that managed only four wins total the previous two years. For the seniors, it was the end of something great. For the Centennial program, it was the beginning of something quite the opposite.
Half a decade has passed since that day. During that span, the Varsity football team has played in 39 games. Of those 39 games they have won exactly one; an away game, quite ironically, also against Hammond. The fact that they have not won a single home game in that span is baffling. How could a program go from being in playoff contention one year to having the worst record in the county over the next five years? There is obviously no clear answer to that question, but what is clear is that the story behind it is very unique.
A combination of depth, experience, and health were all key reasons for Centennial’s strong 2013 campaign. However, a senior-laden team meant that the lineup looked very different in 2014. In addition, two key returning players, Patrick McKinnis and Austin Kraisser, did not play. The Eagles had only four returning starters as a result, fewer than any other team in the county. This dramatic roster turnover did not bode well for Centennial. They were shutout in six games and outscored 452-44 on their way to a 0-10 record. Quickly, it became clear that the team’s hopes laid in its future, not its present. At a certain point, said McKinnis, “our team accepted the 2014 season as a re-development year for all the young talent from JV.”
Mason Smith, a sophomore on Varsity in 2014, was an example of the young talent McKinnis spoke of. In his sophomore year, player turnout was an issue due to the number of seniors on the team previously. To make matters worse, a dismal season only exacerbated the problem in 2015. Most students at Centennial did not have high expectations for the next year and were not interested or willing to try out for a team that had just played one of its worst seasons ever. Although the players’ motivation to win didn’t decline, said Smith, interest in the team certainly did.
Unsurprisingly, the Eagles did not fare much better that year. Led by new head coach Carlos Dunmoodie, the team finished 0-10 for the second year in a row. The season played out very similarly to 2014, with injuries depleting an already small depth chart. Although it certainly did not reflect in the win column and was of no consolation to the players, it was evident that the talented young core from 2014 was gaining experience and beginning to develop. After being outscored by an average of 40.8 points per game in 2014, the Eagles cut that number to only 26.6 in 2015.
Despite the Eagles’ slight improvement, it was still clear that they were not a good football team. Over the past two seasons, the program had developed a reputation for being the worst team in the county, whether justified or not. As a result, attendance at home games dropped dramatically in 2014 and 2015. By the time the 2016 season came around, the team was not only on a mission to win their first game since 2013, but to win the respect of their peers, too.
The Eagles began the 2016 season with a 20 game losing streak hanging over their heads. It had been over 1,000 days- nearly three years-since that senior night win in 2013. However, the Eagles finally put their notorious streak to rest with a 30-21 season opening win over Hammond.
Eli Ross, a senior on the team, credited their improvement to the dedication of his fellow seniors. “We all had the same mindset, to work harder in every way” he said. According to Smith, what the team truly wanted was not to win one game or even ten, but to “bring back the tradition of a thriving football team” to Centennial.
In a sense, the team did exactly that. Centennial did not win any more games in 2016, finishing 1-9, but there was still something special about the 2016 season. Almost all of the Eagles’ games were relatively close; they only lost three games by more than 20 points. In addition to the team being more competitive than it had been in 2014 and 2015, the opening win generated a renewed level of excitement among students that remained strong throughout the season. Smith remembers how, even in a game against undefeated Howard, the stands were full of Centennial students.
Unfortunately, the energy and excitement from the 2016 season did not, or more accurately, could not, carry into 2017. In late August 2017, just one day before the Eagles were scheduled to play their first scrimmage, the Howard County Public School System announced that Centennial’s varsity football team had been disbanded for the year. The school system deemed that a lack of players- less than 20 showed up for the first few days of tryouts- posed a significant safety risk for the players who had come out.
The announcement made plenty of local, even national, headlines. It was the first time that a Howard County high school was without a football team – ever. The news hit most players hard, particularly seniors. Although the county allowed juniors to play on junior varsity given the extenuating circumstances, seniors ended up losing their entire season as a result of the disbandment.
Centennial’s lost 2017 season was the culmination of a downward trend in turnout that began in 2014. Ever since 2013, when the varsity team had 40-50 players on the team, the Eagle’s roster has been continually shrinking. By 2016, that number was down to 20-25. The Eagles, well aware of this disadvantage, had fought hard over the past three years to overcome it. Nevertheless, they often found out that no amount of heart and passion adequately substituted for the depth they lacked.
“Most of our players played the whole game,” Ross remembered, “ by the end … they were just gassed out.” Finally in 2017, with less than 20 players on the team, the Eagles’ depth was too small to overcome.
Heading into 2018, Centennial students wanted to make sure 2017 stayed an anomaly and didn’t become the norm. In February, Centennial hired Billy Martin as head coach of the varsity team, replacing Coach Dunmoodie. Returning players, combined with some new faces eager to revive the program, gave the Eagles just enough players for a team. Their roster, albeit only around 21 players, was bigger than it would have been in 2017. However, playing on such a small team made players prone to injuries. At one point, recalled junior Sam Baeq, “we had as low as 14 players capable of playing.” In fact, Centennial was forced to forfeit a game against Howard because too many players were injured.
In the games which the Eagles had enough healthy players this season, the results were completely lopsided. Centennial gave up a remarkable 50.7 points per game and didn’t score a single point all season. For the program, which hasn’t seen a winning season since 2013, it was a new low.
Now, five years after its last winning season, there are two ways to look at the Centennial football program. It is either rebuilding, slowly yet resiliently bringing back a competitive varsity team from nothing, or dying, valiantly fighting till its last breath in a battle which has already been lost. The latter view, while bleak, is one that must be at least considered.
There is no denying the heart of those who come out for the Centennial football team every year. Perhaps no other team in the county faces the level of adversity that they do. However, in a sport where depth is critical, there is no amount of effort and dedication which can overcome a lack of participation. Due to a large senior class, participation fell off after the 2013 season. Consequently, the team’s performance declined drastically, and with it, student interest as well. Ever since then, the team’s overall poor performance and low student interest have fed off each other. A bad season leads to lower turnout, which leads to another bad season, and so forth. While it is certainly possible that the program is able to break this cycle and become competitive again, there is also a distinct possibility that it does not. Ultimately, Centennial students, both current and future, will be the ones to decide how the story ends.