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. Here is the last installment.
It’s almost 6 on the last Saturday of September, a little more than an hour before the St. Frances Panthers kick off against St. Thomas More School from Connecticut. The tiny Catholic school without its own field is playing, for the first time, at Under Armour’s sparkling new athletic facility on Baltimore Peninsula known as The Stadium at The House.
2Pac’s California Love is blaring out of the overhead speakers and reverberating through the empty bleachers. Panthers senior quarterback Michael Van Buren is practicing handoffs with his running backs Bryce Deas, known as “Juice,” and Nicholas Harris after gathering in shotgun snaps. They’re extremely precise with their footwork, hand placement and ball security.
At 6:20 p.m., Van Buren transitions to drop-back passing drills before switching to rolling outside of the pocket and throwing on the run.
As game time approaches, there’s a seriousness etched into his face, which is covered in a thin film of sweat.
He jogs to join his teammates for stretching, but they aren’t feeling the ’90s hip-hop music — Digital Underground’s Humpty Dance is filling the stadium — that has older folks trickling into the stadium dancing while they head for their seats.
Head coach Messay Hailemariam doesn’t like the energy he’s feeling from his team, so he tells a staffer, “Go get our music.”
Within a minute, a speaker appears on the field blasting Ain’t Done Nun by Gizwop, a young up-and-coming rapper from Southeast Washington, D.C., and the players immediately turn up.
Van Buren is one of the top-ranked signal callers in the class of 2024 and is committed to playing at Oregon. This season hasn’t gone as planned for him and the Panthers, as they sit 1-5 heading into the game. But a strong performance against Mater Dei has bolstered their spirts; a young roster is maturing and overcoming bad injury luck.
Van Buren probably hoped to spend the season making highlight plays in premier national games, building the hype for his college career. He’s been good, but the work is something else. He’s lifting the young players in the program as it pushes through the first slump since Biff Poggi teamed with Hailemariam to turn the team into a national powerhouse.
Five minutes before game time, the players are seated in the locker room, intently listening to Hailemariam’s booming, emphatic pregame message.
“Have fun!,” Hailemariam implores. “We’re coming out of the storm. What are we going to have tonight?”
“Fun!” the players yell in unison.
“When you get out on that field, I want everybody flying around and having fun like this is the last time you’ll ever get a chance to play this awesome game,” the coach continues. “Don’t take it more serious than it is. Don’t play like you’re afraid to make a mistake.”
He commends the younger players — juniors, sophomores and freshmen make up about 90% of the roster — on their growth and development over the season and reminds them that they’re ready to be depended on.
“Now it’s time to unleash!” Hailemariam says, his voice reaching a crescendo like a skilled preacher before delivering his closing message. “This second half of the season, you’re going to finish strong. Am I clear?”
Prior to the Panthers opening drive, Van Buren is calm and relaxed on the sideline, smiling and talking softly with his offensive coordinator, Kendall Jefferson. When it’s time to take the field, he quickly realizes he’s missing his mouthpiece and makes a mad dash to the team’s equipment manager, Dave Dunn, to grab a new one.
The highly touted quarterback, who chose Oregon over Alabama, Michigan, Penn State, Maryland, Tennessee, Miami, Oklahoma and a slew of others, methodically marches the squad down the field for a field goal on the opening possession.
The third drive of the night provides a true glimpse of one piece of Van Buren’s skill set when he slices through the visiting defense for a breathtaking 25-yard touchdown run. The defenders get close but can’t seem to lay a hand on him. Unfortunately the points come off the board due to a holding call.
The drive ends a few plays later when the Panthers’ big offensive line blows the St. Thomas More defensive line off the line of scrimmage and Harris runs into the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown.
Back on the sideline, Van Buren reviews the film of the previous series on a tablet with Jefferson. When he sees his touchdown run that was called back, he incredulously asks, “They called that holding? Ridiculous.”
Van Buren pulls aside one of his receivers, saying, “You gotta dig when they show us that coverage next time; it’s going to be open.” Turning his attention back to Jefferson, he calmly says, “K-Dog, they’re playing Cover 2 on third down; let’s go Ace Right 60 Flat.”
“Michael has a great arm, and he’s incredibly accurate with his throws,” Jefferson said. “He’s also very athletic and can make some magic happen when he leaves the pocket and runs the ball. We look at the film after every offensive series to make sure we’re on the same page in terms of getting what we want, which is to execute, move the ball and score. We’ll talk through what we’re both seeing from our respective vantage points and figure out what should be open the next time we see that same alignment and coverage from the defense.”
Meanwhile, the Panthers defense is extending its excellent performance from the week prior against the nation’s top-ranked team, Mater Dei from Santa Ana, California. The Panthers’ linebackers and defensive linemen constantly invade the backfield.
After one series when the defense viciously knocks him to the ground three plays in a row, one of the coaches asks the linebackers how it feels to have the QB running for survival on every play.
One yells back as he jogs to the sideline, “That’s some shrimp and grits right there!”
On the Panthers’ fifth offensive possession of the first half, freshman quarterback Tristian Sabb, already a top recruit who Hailemariam refers to as the future of the program, jogs onto the field to get a few reps with the first-team offense. Van Buren stands on the sideline with Jefferson, watching his understudy like a proud father.
“A lot of the younger guys look up to Mikey,” Hailemariam said. “He was mentored by the older guys when he got here as a freshman and learned from them what it took to uphold our winning culture and tradition. He takes the responsibility of passing that knowledge along to the young guys very seriously.”
He’s also had some pretty good mentors and older friends that were a few years ahead of him when he was playing for the Bowie Bulldogs youth football program.
“Guys gravitate towards Mikey because of his energy and leadership,” defensive line coach Ian Thomas said. “They believe in him. Caleb Williams, another Bowie guy who won the Heisman Trophy playing quarterback for USC last year and is projected to be the top overall pick in the next NFL draft, he and Mikey are good friends. They work out together. Caleb is a great mentor to him, and there are some similarities to their skill sets.”
When the freshman Sabb scampers for a 10-yard gain, and then unleashes a spiral that hits wide receiver Jermiah Kroger with perfect placement for a 16-yard touchdown, Van Buren smiles with excitement, proud of his freshman protégé.
At halftime, St. Frances jogs back to the locker with a 19-0 lead.
Van Buren grew up in Bowie surrounded by a family that loved watching football. An active kid who was always running around outside or playing the “Madden” video game, he suited up for his first team at the age of 7.
“I loved watching college football, and I wanted to be like those guys when I got older,” he said. “I watched how hard my single mother worked to provide the best life she possibly could for me and my older brother, and I carried that work ethic onto the football field. I always had a natural instinct for the game. After practice, I was always studying the game and watching highlights. My favorite player back then was Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, who won the Heisman Trophy when I was about 9 years old.”
By the eighth grade, he was seen as a rising phenom, with many powerhouse programs in the nearby Washington Catholic Athletic Conference clamoring for his services once he got to high school.
But when he visited St. Frances, there was something about the school, its program and coaches that spoke to his soul.
“When I was visiting schools trying to figure out where I wanted to go, I visited St. Frances and there was just something different about it, different from any other school that I visited,” Van Buren said. “I knew about the opportunities that existed here and how everybody on the team had major Division I scholarship offers. That was in 2020, when Michigan’s star running back Blake Corum was here. I knew that coming here was going to put me in a position to do something special with this football thing, something that could potentially change my life.”
He left Bowie to live in one of the townhomes that houses some of the team’s players, which he says helped him grow up faster than most high school freshmen as he learned to be more disciplined while accepting the responsibility of doing things on his own. He also enjoyed the small atmosphere in the humble building on East Chase Street with a student body of only 250.
“It’s a small school that’s more like a big family,” Van Buren said. “Everybody supports each other, everybody is there to help one another get better and be better students. It’s not like that at most other schools.”
Unfortunately, his freshman year in 2020 was cut short to due to COVID. As a sophomore, he warranted playing time in relief of the team’s senior starter, John Griffith, during the opening two games. Then, in the second half of the Panthers’ third game of the season against Good Counsel, Griffith went down with a concussion.
After St. Frances posted a 50-7 win, a daunting task awaited as they prepared to play Concord, California’s national powerhouse, De La Salle.
“That year, Mikey had a full offseason under his belt and we were really excited, seeing what his true potential was,” Hailemariam said. “When he took some snaps against St. Thomas Aquinas down in Fort Lauderdale during our first game, one of the best teams in the country, he showed some glimpses of greatness for a player that was that young and inexperienced. But when our starter went down, his first high school start was going to be in a nationally televised game on ESPN. During the first half of that game, that’s when he really blew up.”
Van Buren made the most of his start against De La Salle, throwing four first-half touchdowns and completing 16 of 19 passes for 241 yards in the Panthers’ 42-28 win.
He became just the third opposing quarterback to throw four TD passes against the Spartans defense, joining USC’s former Heisman winner Matt Leinart and current Oregon State signal caller DJ Uiagalelei.
“I went from being a young guy who was on the team to having to step into the role of a veteran,” Van Buren said. “I felt like I was in the zone from the very beginning, making my reads and letting the ball go. I was feeling it. After the first few minutes I forgot that we were playing in front of a national audience on ESPN.”
During halftime against St. Thomas More on Saturday night, the mood in the locker room is jovial. Van Buren walks around with a twinkle in his eye, exhorting his guys, who laugh loudly while drinking pickle juice and bottles of the Body Armor sports drink, to “Keep it up! Keep it up! Let’s keep our foot on their necks!”
And that’s exactly what they do in the second half. The Panthers consistently eat up big chunks of yardage in the air and on the ground. On one run, Van Buren leaves the pocket for a nifty 9-yard gain. A defender from St. Thomas More is in his face as he gets back on his feet, barking.
Van Buren yells back, “Stop all that crying and play ball!”
On the next play, he unleashes a beautiful spiral that travels 35 yards in the air. It hits his receiver, landing perfectly in his hands, but he drops the ball. The guys rally around him. “We’ll get the next one,” Van Buren tells him.
On first-and-goal from the 5-yard line, Van Buren takes the snap, takes one backward jab step and bursts through the middle on a perfectly executed counter as he follows his guard and tackle into the end zone.
A frustrated defender holds onto to him a little too long for his liking after the touchdown. When Van Buren is finally let go, he spins the ball at the dejected defender’s feet and breaks out into what is known in the youth football world as the Weezy Dance. The action draws a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct that is implemented on the ensuing kickoff.
“Hey, Mikey, now we’re starting to have some fun, right?” Hailemariam tells him as he approaches the sideline. “But let’s not have too much fun because I don’t like 15-yard penalties.”
At the start of the fourth quarter, with St. Frances comfortably ahead, Hailemariam stands alone on the sideline with his arms folded. He softly says to himself, “Now this is what I’m used to.”
During the second half, Hailemariam’s cellphone rings. He never answers the phone during a game, but this call warranted picking up. It was Ravens head coach John Harbaugh on the other line.
“I see that you’re weathering the storm, that you guys are back to executing and having fun,” Harbaugh told him. “Let’s get together soon and catch up.”
Van Buren wraps up his day with another delightful touchdown toss, a 30-yard bullet to Brian Jackson.
Everyone is all smiles as they walk off the field with a 39-0 victory.
“After the Mater Dei loss last week, we wanted to really execute tonight,” Van Buren said. “We came out fast and played at a really good tempo, moving the ball up and down the field very well. Our defense played lights out again, and we found our rhythm offensively. I kept thinking about what Coach Messay has been preaching to us all week, to get back to having fun. We definitely had some fun tonight.”