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Conference wants to regain football bragging rights in fifth annual Chick-fil-A Challenge

Prince George’s vs. SMAC

What: Fifth annual Chick-fil-A ChallengeWhen: 2 p.m. SaturdayWhere: North Point High School, 2500 Davis Road, Waldorf

By DALLAS COGLE

Staff writer

Not that the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference senior all-stars ever owned the annual Chick-fil-A Challenge, but they did boast bragging rights over their counterparts from Prince George’s County until last year in the football game.

After falling to the SMAC in the first two Chick-fil-A Challenge contests, Prince George’s rebounded by handily winning the last two installments of the rivalry showcase, which draws plenty of attention from college scouts.

So Saturday’s fifth Chick-fil-A Challenge, scheduled for a 2 p.m. kickoff, will break the two-all tie in the series. The game returns to a familiar site at North Point, where the second and third Chick-fil-A Challenges were played.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to coach in this game,” said SMAC head coach Rick Sneade, also the frontman at Calvert. He was a SMAC assistant coach last year and in the 2009 Chick-fil-A Challenge. “It’s exciting and it’s a challenge to get the kids going in the right direction. I think for our coaches, [ending the SMAC’s two-game losing streak] is something we think about. For the players, they weren’t part of the team last year and the year before. However, they do know we haven’t won the last two years, but I try not to remind them of that because I want them going into the game with a positive attitude.

“Overall, this game is huge. When you talk to college scouts, you realize this game helps springboard a lot of players onto the recruiting map. When you play great talent like that in P.G. and you play them well, our kids start to get noticed.”

Sneade understands that the SMAC remains at a bit of a disadvantage in the matchup given they draw from 13 schools in the league, whereas Prince George’s has a much larger pool of talent to choose from with 24 programs at its disposal.

Prince George’s has also fielded players with more size, particularly up front, in this contest, and that will hold true in Saturday’s showdown as well.

Not having McDonough star offensive tackle Na’Ty Rodgers, the 27th-ranked player in the country at his position in the ESPN 100 with a multitude of major college programs recruiting him, only magnifies the SMAC’s lack of size compared to Prince George’s. Rodgers is playing in two other all-star events, including the nationally televised Under Armour All-America Game on Jan. 4 on ESPN in Florida, so NCAA rules permit him from being involved in any more such contests.

Still, the SMAC is undeterred from its seeming disadvantages on paper, ready to take back its former upper hand in the Chick-fil-A Challenge.

“More than ending a losing streak, we want to set the tone in the rivalry and the game itself,” said SMAC assistant head coach Luke Ethington, the frontman for the McDonough Rams that shared the league title this season with Huntingtown. “We want to establish the idea that we play a good brand of football here in Southern Maryland. You definitely have to tip your hat to the athletes that P.G. brings to the table, but this week [in our practices] we’ve been focusing on our execution on both sides of the ball. We’re going into the game with a high level of confidence.”

Last year’s contest was played on the Bowie State University gridiron, and Prince George’s made the most of the homefield advantage with a 21-10 victory, the SMAC not finding the end zone until the game was all but decided with a couple minutes left.

In 2010, Prince George’s was responsible for the only blowout in Chick-fil-A Challenge history with a 34-7 shellacking of the SMAC.

The SMAC emerged victorious the two previous years in close outcomes, winning the inaugural Chick-fil-A Challenge in 2008 by a 40-35 shootout and then edging Prince George’s the following year in an opposite style of game when it came to scoring, 7-0.

Need more offense

First year aside, the one constant for the SMAC throughout the history of the Chick-fil-A Challenge has been its inability to generate much offense, averaging eight points per game since 2009. Prince George’s, even with being shut out in 2009, is averaging over 18 points per game the last three years.

“We have to win the battle up front,” said Sneade, whose primary role is to lead the SMAC offense. “They’re good-sized guys up front, so we have to execute. We hope to use formations to help us execute our blocking schemes up front. You have to be able to spread them out. We can’t go toe-to-toe with them because they’re so big. I’m banking on, if we can go out there and have defensive stops and create some turnovers, then we can get ahead early and stay ahead and keep momentum. We have to control the ball and force issues with our defense.”

Ethington and his McDonough defensive coordinator Thad Freeman are leading the SMAC’s defense, which has already impressed Sneade in practice.

“On defense, we’re pretty stout,” Sneade said. “I tell you what, our defense is talented. Offensively, our team has a balance.”

Ethington added, “Coach Sneade has put together an effective game plan in practice. These SMAC all-stars have been selected to this game for a reason. Every year we take this game seriously. I can’t say it’s any different [now] than any other year. We’re going to go out and be competitive. We’re going out to get that ‘W.’”

Both teams have been practicing throughout this week in gearing up for Saturday’s clash.

The Chick-fil-A Challenge mandates that teams must run and pass an equal amount of times offensively, among other rules that are special to this contest that are not usually a part of a game during the season.

“The talent level is very high,” said SMAC assistant Tyrone Bell, who just finished his first season as head coach at Great Mills where he played and graduated from in 1997. “Every year this team has grown bigger and faster. It’s a college coach’s dream to see this much [high school senior] talent in the same place. Having said that, talent helps you in games but hard work and perseverance guarantees the win. These young men have a maturity about them that they understand the task at hand.

“We are playing an excellent P.G. county team, maybe the best they have ever had. It will take a week of sweat and soreness to overcome our opponent but I feel we can do it.”

Sneade, formerly an assistant at Huntingtown before taking the helm of Calvert the last two seasons, is excited to be reconnected on the same sideline with some of his former players.

“I get to go back and coach some of those kids I built a relationship with three to four years ago at Huntingtown,” he said. “To have four of our boys from Calvert also playing alongside them, these kids from Calvert can now see this is where we’re taking Calvert football [as a program].”

dcogle@somdnews.com