The Archbishop Spalding football team is one of the schools that got off to a solid start in a season where there were so many doubts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Cavaliers beat Calvert Hall (17-7) and Loyola Blakefield (55-7) before the Archdiocese of Baltimore decided in late November to shut down the rest of the fall high school sports season because of the rise in COVID-19 cases. A number of Catholic schools in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association had planned to play an open season of six or seven games apiece starting in early November.

Spalding’s good start led to a tougher task for coach Kyle Schmitt — he had to tell the players everything was over.

“I think we were headed to having a pretty good year,” Schmitt said. “But we spent five weeks together. Our seniors got to play a little more football as a group. We got a good chance to evaluate our young players and [see them]. It served a little bit like spring ball.”

Schmitt said it was a tough pill to swallow for his players but they knew it could be coming. Still, everyone associated with the program misses playing football.

“They were disappointed but our kids right now … they’re prepared for bad news,” Schmitt said. “Our kids understood where we stood. I really wanted to play and would play again tomorrow.”

Still, Schmitt praised his players for their work during the short season.

Senior defensive back Zakee Wheatley, who is headed to Penn State, was well on his way to a productive 2020 season after a strong 2019. Senior running back Shamar Smith played well during the Cavaliers’ two games but isn’t sure what his college future holds — same with senior center Chase Lusk, who also fared nicely in the fall.

Another positive development for the Cavaliers is that their junior varsity squad went 3-0. The varsity team likely will need help from younger players in 2021 — much like quarterback Nick Gutierrez provided this year.

The junior was a backup last year and saw some playing time periodically but wound up stepping into the starting role during the shortened 2020 season.

“I was really grateful for getting those two games as a starter,” Gutierrez said. “It gives me a lot more confidence in myself, and the team will bounce back [next year].”

Gutierrez agreed with his coach that some of the painful lessons Spalding learned from having its season cut off can help in 2021.

“Not everything is guaranteed,” the quarterback said. “Just be ready for anything. I think we really all just learned a lesson [and will] work with what [we] have.”

Schmitt said that with the rising COVID-19 rates and so much uncertainty from the first day of practice, he was not surprised at how the season unfolded. Still, he was glad his team got in those two victories and a scrimmage.

“I give our administration [credit] for giving us the chance to play as long as we did,” the coach said. “We’re thankful for that. I think the kids learned a lot about gratitude … in their current situation and life.”

Another team that had started well was Loyola. The Dons were at 2-1 with their only loss coming at the hands of Spalding. Loyola coach Anthony Zehyoue was impressed with the Cavaliers.

“They’re really talented,” he said. “It’s tough because right when you’re getting into a rhythm and a routine and then it ends.”

The cancellation of the historic 101st Turkey Bowl against Calvert Hall, the news of which came five days before the contest was scheduled to be played, was perhaps the toughest part of the season for the Dons.

Zehyoue said it was a terribly difficult message to deliver to his kids because the game means so much to the community, but the schools had no choice due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“The hardest part for those guys was for us to look [at them] and tell them the Turkey Bowl was canceled,” the coach said. “It was just five days before, and I had to be the bearer of bad news. It’s just tough. There are a lot of people who only attend that game.”

In the games it did play, Loyola defeated St. Mary’s and St. Paul’s, so the Dons were able to take something good from the season.

Likewise, Spalding will try to take some of the good things it did into 2021. The Cavaliers are going to be a younger team and will have to learn to work together.

“I think we need to work on getting our chemistry together,” Gutierrez said. “We’re going to have a lot of new pieces.”

And that means offseason work. The 6-foot-1, 173-pound Gutierrez wants to get bigger for his senior year and let things roll off his back more, the sign of a strong leader. If something happens on a play that he doesn’t like, Gutierrez wants to just move Spalding on to the next one.

In the end, there was nothing certain about this season — if it would start, how long it would last or just about anything else, for that matter. Schmitt said in early December that his team was going to take the rest of the month off and work on getting together after that.

“There was so much pressure, that it was inevitable that [the end] finally came,” Schmitt said.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Archbishop Spalding

Issue 266: December 2020 / January 2021

Originally published Dec. 16, 2020

Jeff Seidel

See all posts by Jeff Seidel. Follow Jeff Seidel on Twitter at @JeffSeid62