Panthers game a loss, but the trip’s a winner
ANN ARBOR, MICH. — Until Friday night, the biggest stadium in which B’Ahmad Miller had played was the Alamodome in San Antonio, capacity 72,000. For Gary Brightwell, it was Delaware’s 22,000-seat home stadium. Both marks fell Friday, along with all the others for the St. Frances football team.
The Panthers made the 500-mile trip from Baltimore to play Friday at Michigan Stadium, the biggest football stadium in the United States with an official capacity of 107,601, though it regularly holds more.
Friday’s game drew only about 300 fans, but St. Frances players raved about the experience of playing on one of college football’s biggest stages. After entering halftime with a chance to pull off an upset, the Panthers lost to Paramus Catholic (N.J.), 38-20, as part of the Geico ESPN High School Football Showcase.
In coach Henry Russell’s first season, No. 10 St. Frances (1-1) put forth a strong showing as an unproven team. Russell and most of the old staff at Gilman are starting over at a St. Frances program that finished 2-10 last year. In their first year, they have brought in several transfers, including Miller from Eastern Christian in Elkton and Brightwell from St. Georges Tech in Delaware.
“Coach Russell, he’s a great man. I had no place to live for a while, and he brought me into his own home,” said Miller, who moved from Delaware for an easier commute to St. Frances. “Like I said, I love that dude. And I’m just now meeting him this year.”
The Panthers have made progress quickly this season, and no experience will come on a bigger stage than Friday’s. News of St. Frances’ game at Michigan Stadium broke in June, one of a number of unconventional moves by Russell since he took over the program.
About the same time, St. Frances hosted a satellite football camp at Patterson Park, drawing Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, Maryland coach DJ Durkin and a number of other coaches.
“Michigan has been unbelievable for us,” Russell said. “Coach Harbaugh has been great, and reaching out, whether we need coaches clinics or help with anything, they’ve been a tremendous resource for us. It’s an honor to be able to play here and play in their stadium.”
In fact, both schools have recent ties to Michigan. Former Gilman coach Biff Poggi, whose son Henry is a redshirt sophomore fullback for the Wolverines, accepted an assistant coaching position at Michigan a month ago. Former Paramus Catholic coach Chris Partridge is also on Harbaugh’s staff at Michigan as the linebackers coach, and two of the Wolverines’ top recruits in the past three years, Jabrill Peppers and Rashan Gary, are from Paramus Catholic.
Though this year’s team lacks the star power of Peppers and Gary, the Paladins are still one of New Jersey’s football powerhouses, ranked No. 5 in the state by USA Today. The Panthers led by one at halftime after erasing a 13-point first-half deficit with a pair of second-quarter touchdowns. The teams traded scores early in the third before the Paladins ran away with the game, putting up 17 unanswered points.
“We’re ahead of where I thought we’d be,” Russell said. “It’s tough to bring a whole new program and get kids together and on the same page in a short amount of time. Paramus, they’ve got tremendous talent, national players, and for us to compete, I think we’re right where we need to be and we know where we have to get better. But we’re close. We’re going in the right direction.”