This is the latest installment of The Banner’s occasional series about the St. Frances Academy football program that has routinely been ranked among the best teams in the country over the last few years.
The previously pleasant weather has subsided on the first Friday in November as the St. Frances offense jogs onto the Under Armour Stadium field for its first series against the visiting squad from Fort Washington’s National Christian Academy.
With the temps dipping into the 40s and the swirling winds making it feel even colder, Panthers wide receiver Jeremiah Koger lines up split left as quarterback Michael Van Buren barks signals. The 6-foot-4 junior dwarfs the opposing defensive back, who inexplicably doesn’t begin his backpedal until after Koger has exploded off the line of scrimmage.
“When I took off running and saw that he didn’t start moving, in my mind I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I got him,’” Koger said.
Koger runs a go route straight down the sideline and, with Van Buren sitting comfortably in the pocket, turns his head to make eye contact with his talented quarterback.
“When I saw that Mikey was looking at me, I knew the ball was coming,” Koger said.
Van Buren sends a perfect spiral airborne as the defensive back tries valiantly to make up ground, attempting to grab Koger, who has nothing between him and the end zone but white lines and soft, green turf.
“Jeremiah is a great athlete, a great player who runs excellent routes, and he’s big, fast and twitchy,” said Van Buren, a highly regarded recruit who’ll be suiting up for Oregon next year. “As a quarterback, it’s fun to have a guy that big that has big, strong hands who catches everything. He makes a lot of plays for us and, with the attention he commands, that opens up other things for us all over the field.
“He’s also a fun energy guy who gives us a certain personality because he always has a smile on his face.”
The ball drops out of the sky and into Koger’s outstretched hands in the same way it did every time during pregame warmups, with perfect timing and ease.
The Panthers take a 7-0 lead on their first play from scrimmage.
The onslaught would continue from there.
At 3 p.m. that day, the mood around the players and coaches is playful, jovial. The cramped basement corridor that leads past the equipment room and toward the small cafeteria at St. Frances Academy, wedged into East Baltimore, is filled with bursts of laughter and silly dance moves.
The coaches’ office is constantly active as players trickle in to see if they can get a smaller set of pants or a new pair of gloves and cleats.
Equipment manager Dave Dunn manages the storm with a quiet countenance, yelling into the adjacent room what numbers have been given to certain players so the team’s head of operations, Ryan Burbrink, can update the evening’s roster.
Head coach Messay Hailemariam, who took on the mannerisms of an erupting volcano prior to the previous week’s game against Florida’s Specially Fit Academy, is the opposite on this afternoon.
He leans back in a chair smiling, glowing as he talks to Koger, who’s sitting on an adjacent couch with his fingers twisting the emerging locks on his head, his long legs struggling to navigate the compact space in the portable white plastic table in front of him.
When someone asks Koger a question, Hailemariam mischievously interrupts, saying, “Jeremiah just learned to talk, so it might take him a minute to answer.”
Koger shoots an incredulous look at his head coach with a rascally smile of his own, responding, “Excuse me, sir, but prior to this I attended an esteemed institution, Archbishop Curley. I’ve been reading and writing very well for a long time before I came to St. Frances, thank you very much.”
At 3:30 p.m., the coach is back to being serious as he stands before the team to deliver some words prior to the pregame meal, courtesy of a $900 order from Chick-fil-A. He hands the speaking reins to a trusted confidante, the school’s hulking cafeteria chef, Danaz Williams, who talks about the mistakes he made after a strong high school career in Baltimore that cost him a shot at college and NFL stardom.
Before boarding the bus, Hailemariam shakes his head when he receives individual grades from the most recent marking period. He sends a player to summon a few students and says, “Tell them to bring their uniforms and equipment with them.”
One player is shocked when he’s told he won’t be playing tonight due to his poor academic performance. He looks disappointed when he’s told to hand in his equipment and uniform.
“I’d be doing you a disservice if I allowed you to play tonight,” Hailemariam tells him. “It hurts me to do it, but you have to be held accountable. You got two weeks to work with your teachers and do what you need to do to bring these up to passing grades if you want to go on the trip with us to play against IMG.”
“But my grades are good, Coach Messay,” the player pleads, though his voice lacks confidence.
“Boy, don’t play with me,” Hailemariam says, his eyes and voice taking on a more serious tone. “You have five F’s. I don’t know why you even came in here to get dressed knowing that you had five F’s.”
The player sulks as he walks out of the office, sans equipment, to get on the bus that will transport them to the game.
Before heading into the locker room at the Under Armour facility in Port Covington to deliver his pregame speech, Hailemariam is dancing on the field as Drake’s Laugh Now Cry Later leaps out of the overhead sound system.
He stops intermittently to chat with the assistant coaches from Wake Forest and Maryland who have stopped by to spend the day with the program and recruit players.
The words directed at his team aren’t filled with vitriol, and his message is simple.
“We’ve made it to the other side of the storm, but don’t get complacent,” he says. “Our mentality should never be that we’re better than anybody else. It should be that, whoever is lined up across from us, we’re going to outwork them.”
When Kroger opens the game with his touchdown grab, it marks his third catch over the last two games. All three have resulted in touchdowns of 35 yards or longer.
The excitement of his two touchdowns the week prior led to his ejection midway through the second quarter for celebrating excessively, doing what is known in the youth football world as the Weezy dance after each score.
“I love that you’re having fun,” Hailemariam told Kroger as he approached the sideline after his second touchdown. “But I don’t love getting penalties and having you get ejected. No more dancing!”
Koger takes heed against National Christian, handing the ball to the referee before jogging to the sideline to celebrate with teammates.
“I made sure to cut out the dancing this week,” Koger said.
Koger is beginning to attract the attention of major college programs, having received recent scholarship offers from Boston College, Maryland and Virginia Tech.
“Jeremiah has an unbelievable skill set, and I’m very excited for his future,” Burbrink said. “He’s hilarious, loves to have a good time, and he’s an emerging talent as a receiver with major Division I potential. His scholarship list is going to grow very fast.”
When Van Buren escapes a collapsing pocket on his first pass attempt of the next series, he hits Chase Wilkens, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound senior tight end, for a 75-yard touchdown. Koger is the first one to sprint toward the end zone to congratulate Wilkens, who’ll play next year at Monmouth, hugging him like a long-lost relative.
“You know you’re my favorite white guy, right?” Koger says through a wide smile as teammates laugh and celebrate.
Koger’s teammates and coaches refer to him as “J Money,” and he certainly brings a different currency to the team dynamic.
“Jeremiah has this infectious personality in addition to being a relentless competitor,” Hailemariam said. “He’s very encouraging of his teammates, selfless, and he just has this wonderful aura about him where he takes joy in seeing his teammates succeed. He has this smile, this joyful exuberance and energy. That translates and spreads throughout the locker room.”
When running back Kaden Foster, a 6-foot, 190-pound sophomore with offers from Boston College and Maryland, speeds down the left sideline for a spectacular 78-yard touchdown run with 4:45 left in the second quarter to put St. Frances ahead 28-6, Koger, who was lined up on the opposite end of the field, sprints toward the end zone and is the first to give him a high-five.
Koger, born and raised in Baltimore, was an accomplished football and basketball player at Archbishop Curley as a freshman and sophomore. His mother, a medical assistant at Johns Hopkins, made sure he accomplished things in the classroom as well.
“My mom don’t play when it comes to academics,” Koger said. “So I’m accustomed to working just as hard in the classroom as I do on the football field.”
After his sophomore football season at Curley, he began having thoughts about transferring to a school where he could maximize his talents and showcase his skills on a higher level.
This summer, he played on an AAU basketball team coached by Nick Myles, St. Frances’ hoops coach and athletic director. Myles took notice of Koger’s size, speed, footwork, hands, energy and proclivity for soaring high to outfight bigger kids for rebounds.
“I knew he wanted to play football on a bigger stage and introduced him to Coach Messay,” Myles said. “Messay looked at his film and evaluated him, and we thought he’d be a good fit, not only with the football team but with the entire school community. He’s a great kid from a great family that is respectful, bright and fun to be around.”
Koger was not intimidated during those first few practices with the Panthers, matching up against defenders in every position group who hold major scholarship offers.
“In those initial practices, I could see more clearly that I had what it took to compete against anyone,” Koger said. “I felt like, if I kept working hard and continued to do well in school, that there was a place for me at the highest levels of the game.”
Hailemariam was immediately impressed when the Panthers donned their pads in practice.
“You could see how athletic and dynamic he was from day one,” Hailemariam said. “He was a really good basketball player, and you could see how that translated to him playing wide receiver at 6-foot-4.”
“Being on the football field is so much fun. How can you not like it?”
Prior to the second half against National Christian, Koger is informed that he’ll play only the first offensive series before giving way to the second string. He pleads for one more series after that and is rebuffed. He then asks to at least continue playing special teams for the rest of the game.
“Jeremiah loves playing football, and he’s a special kid,” Panthers offensive coordinator Kendall Jefferson said. “He’s a big, fast, unique, explosive receiver with big, strong hands. Anytime you throw him a 50-50 ball, which is essentially a jump ball, he’s coming down with it. The best defensive back on every team draws the assignment of covering him, and he always manages to make big plays.
“He’s kind of under the national radar right now, but he’ll be a household name in the next couple of years.”
Koger lines up on the kickoff team to open the second half and jokes with teammates on the sideline.
“Either I’m going to be the first one to the ball, or I’m going to hit somebody really hard, watch,” he says with an omnipresent grin.
But the plan goes awry.
Moving at an accelerated rate while trying to maintain his lane integrity, he turns his head slightly to see the kick returner running toward the middle of the field. The opposing player a few yards in front of him capitalizes on his slight advantage and levels Koger with a vicious hit that folds him onto the turf like a piece of inexpensive lawn furniture.
Jogging back to the sideline after quickly hopping to his feet, Koger is still smiling. Now he’s beaming.
“Ayo, J Money, what happened right there?” one of his teammates yells amid a chorus of laughter.
“Oh, he got me good. I ain’t even gonna lie,” Koger shoots back. “But that ain’t the hardest I ever been hit. Pedro got me real good one day in practice a while back.”
Standing on the sideline for the remainder of St. Frances’ 50-6 win, he continues to spread smiles and laughter among coaches and teammates.
St. Frances, winner of three games in a row, improves to 4-5.
Friday night, it will play its final home game of the season, Senior Day, against Canada North. The Panthers will close the year in Florida against national powerhouse IMG — the squad that took them out of national championship contention last year — Nov. 17.
“Being on the football field is so much fun. How can you not like it?” Koger says after the clock has expired against National Christian. “How can you not be smiling all the time, every chance you get an opportunity to play this awesome game? I don’t know what it is, but I do know that I love it and want to cherish every opportunity I have to play and be around my guys.”