The team that wins the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference football championship receives The Mike Whittles Trophy, named in honor of the longtime Archbishop Spalding coach who died of pancreatic cancer in 2012. Whittles inspired many with his battle against cancer, and the league put his name on the trophy months after his death.
Now, the Cavaliers want that trophy. They've never won the A Conference title since moving up from the B Conference in 2011. Head coach Kyle Schmitt said Spalding would love to earn the trophy with their former coach's name on it, a man who meant so much to so many.
"It would be huge," Schmitt said. "A goal for us [this year] would be to win it because the trophy is The Mike Whittles Trophy. That would be for us a way to honor our past."
Schmitt said Whittles played a major role in building up the program, and the Cardinals now are a force in the MIAA A Conference.
Last year, there was no MIAA A Conference championship game. Citing a serious competitive disparity and safety issues, other conference schools declined to play powerful St. Frances (which has since moved on to play an independent schedule). The conference declared St. Frances the 2018 champion before the season began.
Alternatively, the Maryland Christian Schools Invitational tournament was organized. Calvert Hall defeated Spalding in the finals, 35-21. The Cavaliers finished 7-3 last year and jumped off to a 4-1 start this season, scoring 208 points in those first five games.
"Spalding has a combination of great athletes and [a] very good coaching staff which makes them extremely dangerous week in and week out," Mount Saint Joseph coach Rich Holzer said. "[They] play with a high degree of intensity and as an opposing team, you always need to come in prepared to match that."
The Cavaliers feature a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, but they can rack up the points on offense. They began the season with a 56-0 rout of Bishop McDevitt (Pa.) at home. Then came a 56-14 victory at Bishop Moore (Fla.) before a 43-29 victory at Bullis (Md.). After that was a 21-7 loss to Our Lady of Good Counsel (Md.), a team that has been ranked high in The Washington Post's polls all season long. But the Cavaliers rebounded from that home loss with another display of their offensive firepower -- a 46-12 victory at Malvern Prep (Pa.).
Spalding has a high-powered offense, and Schmitt said he doesn't mind a game in which there are plenty of points on the board both ways.
"We play up-tempo, [go for] long drives and like putting the opposing offense in long-yardage situations," Schmitt said. "That's sort of a goal of ours on defense. We don't mind getting into a track meet. We like there to be a lot of possessions in games. We're very comfortable in that style of football."
Junior quarterback Austin Tutas has been the gunslinger so far on offense. He has already received an offer from Virginia Tech and has several other big schools looking at him. Through the first five games, he threw for 1,278 yards with nine touchdowns and just three interceptions. Those numbers would have been even better if Schmitt hadn't pulled him early a few times during games that had turned into routs.
Senior running back Shamar Smith had 532 yards and eight touchdowns during the first five games after missing all of last year with a torn ACL. Juniors Bryson Carter and Zakee Wheatley have led the way in the receiving department. Carter made 30 catches in the first four games, but has missed time due to a broken hand.
Schmitt said they're hoping he'll be back by mid-to-late October, when the team's MIAA Conference schedule kicks into full gear. Wheatley had 10 catches in the win against Malvern Prep, stepping up in Carter's absence. Wheatley posted 25 receptions through the first five contests and also has three interceptions as a cornerback. He has already received offers from Penn State, Michigan State, Northwestern, Virginia and others.
Senior Jahmeer Carter, committed to Virginia, has given the defense a boost at nose tackle and has played right tackle on offense. Carter can play right guard as well. Junior Jayon Venerable, committed to Maryland, plays cornerback and safety.
Spalding's MIAA A Conference schedule started Oct. 11 with a game against Gilman, which has struggled this season. But it gets interesting during the final three weeks, as the Cavaliers meet Calvert Hall, McDonogh and Mount Saint Joseph, all teams which also got off to great starts.
After that should come the four-team playoff for the MIAA A Conference title, and Schmitt is looking forward to the return of a traditional postseason format.
"I think it's great, and the playoffs are fun," Schmitt said. "Everybody wants to be in the playoffs. The strategy of the thing is going to be interesting. We're going to have to beat two of the four teams [we face late in the regular season] in a playoff game."
Schmitt says that in postseason play, it all goes back to the basics.
"A lot of it comes down to fundamentals at that point in the season," he said. "In November, we're all going to know each other very well. There will be minimal schematical changes or surprises."
But in the end, the Cavaliers want the trophy named after their former leader. Spalding has been edging closer to the title and the trophy.
Could this be the Cavaliers' year?
"The football culture of the place was built by Mike Whittles, and I can't think of anything better than to win the trophy," Schmitt said.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Archbishop Spalding
Issue 258: October 2019
Originally published Oct. 15, 2019