Over the past four years, the Gilman-Good Counsel football rivalry has turned into one of the premier high school football showdowns in Maryland.
Last season, Good Counsel dealt the Greyhounds an excruciating 20-19 loss after a missed extra point in overtime. The year before, the Falcons won, 26-21. Those wins sealed their perch atop the Maryland High School Football Media State Poll at the end of the season. Each time, Gilman finished No. 2 in the rankings.
Both teams are rebuilding this season, but Friday night's clash between the two-time defending Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference champion Greyhounds and the four-time defending Washington Catholic Athletic Conference champion Falcons remains as highly anticipated as any game in the state this fall. Good Counsel ranks No. 19 in USA Today's Super 25 preseason poll, while Gilman is No. 50 in the newspaper's "The Next 25" category.
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The season opener for both teams is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. at Towson University's Johnny Unitas Stadium in a game that is part of the ESPN High School Football Kickoff and the Under Armour Brothers In Arms Classic.
Their meeting has always come early in the season because both teams play their conference games in the latter part of the year. That makes this year's game especially intriguing because both teams graduated so many good players.
"We've lost an awful lot of good football players over the last two to three years," Gilman coach Biff Poggi said, "and because they're good football players, the other guys don't play much. It's good to have good football players until they leave, and then you've got to get the other guys ready. We're in some growing pains, but I do think we are a spirited group. The kids play really hard."
Returning just three starters on offense and four on defense, the Greyhounds have a combined 21 freshmen and sophomores this season. That's more than Poggi has ever kept on varsity during a 16-year career that includes 11 MIAA A Conference titles.
The Greyhounds suffered perhaps their biggest loss in a corps of linebackers that was wiped out by graduation. Seniors Chase Campbell and Trevor Tomlinson, and sophomore Dorian Maddox will debut as the new unit.
Junior Kai Locksley takes over at quarterback for Gilman, and although he's a different style of runner than last year's All-Metro quarterback, Shane Cockerille, the Greyhounds will remain a running offense. While Cockerille ran through people with his physical style, Locksley brings more speed and agility to his footwork.
The Greyhounds are also looking for big things from their running backs, senior Bijan Rhett and sophomore Antonio Dupree, who both broke long touchdown runs in scrimmages.
A handful of key defensive players return for the Greyhounds, led by All-Metro end Melvin Keihn, a senior who has taken on a more vocal leadership role. Senior cornerback Troy Vincent Jr., who has committed to Penn State and will also punt, is also back this season, along with senior Chibuzo Ukandu, an All-Metro second-team pick at offensive tackle in 2012, and junior strong safety Robert Branch.
The defense remains a strength for Gilman, along with lines averaging nearly 6 feet 4, 285 pounds. Both will be critical to the Greyhounds' performance against Good Counsel, which also returns strong line play and a few stellar defenders.
"We've got a lot of things we've got to do," Poggi said. "We've got to stop the run on defense. That's what we have to do first. We've got to prove we can do that. Offensively, we have to get first downs, and we can't turn the ball over. New quarterback, you worry about that. We can't be making bad decisions, and because we're so new on our special teams, it's really important that we get first downs."
Good Counsel coach Bob Milloy is also worried about turnovers with a first-year starting quarterback — junior Bryan Strittmatter, who is familiar to the Greyhounds because he kicked the extra point that won last year's game.
"He played a lot last year in a backup role, and he's done a good job," Milloy said. "Last year, our quarterback was 6-5 and a drop-back passer who got a scholarship to Virginia, and Bryan is 5-11, 6-foot, and he's more of a spread kind of guy. But he's a good athlete. He can handle pressure, and we've got our fingers crossed.
In addition to which quarterback passes the initial test, the difference Friday night likely will come on the line, a strength for both teams, as they try to establish the run and stop the opposition's running game.
Sam Mustipher, a senior tackle from Baltimore who is headed to Notre Dame, and senior guard Richie Wenzel anchor the Falcons' offensive line. Defensively, senior end Jesse Aniebonam and senior safety Kobie Walker, who has committed to Kentucky, are among the veterans.
Still, Milloy said he's concerned about the Greyhounds' ability to break longs runs and returns in their recent scrimmages.
"They had two huge plays against St. John's, a 90-yard kickoff return and about an 80-yard run," Milloy said, "and they had a couple long runs against Gonzaga, who are in our league, and they're a good football team. I thought Gilman maybe had the edge on both teams, but it was close."
Close has been the watchword for the Gilman-Good Counsel rivalry, with the last two games decided by a total of six points. Gilman's only win in the past four years was the only lopsided contest in that span — 28-7 in 2010 — after Good Counsel won, 49-37, in 2009.