Youth league wears size large

Football: Thanks to Bill Casagrande, middle school boys too big for weight-restricted leagues have a home -- and high school coaches are giving thanks.

November 17, 1999|By Pat O'Malley | Pat O'Malley,SUN STAFF

Bill Casagrande's secret is out, and high school football in Maryland might be the better for it. His idea is growing as fast as the kids are.

Finally, middle schoolers are getting the chance to do something Casagrande couldn't do as a youth in the Parkville area.

In 1995, Casagrande founded the Mid-Atlantic Unlimited Youth Football Association with one team -- a 35-player squad for junior-high-aged youths too big to make teams in weight-restricted leagues.

They faced any private school freshman-sophomore team that would play them, and now, five years later, there is an eight-team league for more than 200 players (grades 6 through 8) from Baltimore to the Eastern Shore.

Casagrande was always too big to make weight in local youth leagues, and had no place to play until he started at Parkville High as a 6-foot-2, 240-pound 10th-grader.

Going on to play at Harford Community College, , Casagrande later got into coaching with the Harford-Baltimore Youth League and encountered many youngsters who were unable to play because they were, as he once was, too big.

"Watching kids do unsafe and unhealthy things to make weight was frustrating," said Casagrande, who cited such things as taking diuretics, laxatives and over-the-counter diet pills, sitting in steaming-hot bathtubs the night before a game or not eating or drinking all day before a weigh-in.

"After a while, a lot of the bigger kids would give up, not play or try other sports."

Casagrande's inaugural team did not win a game, and a 6-2, 220-pound eighth-grader by the name of Lou Lombardo scored the only touchdown. Lombardo is now a 6-7, 290-pound tackle at Calvert Hall who has committed orally to the University of Maryland.

Lombardo is one of a host of MUYFA products who started playing high school football in the metro area having already been educated in the fundamentals.

The success of Casagrande, who coaches the Greater Loch Raven Recreation Council Ravens in the MUYFA, was much welcomed by Biff Poggi, coach of the area's top-ranked high school team, Gilman.

Poggi was so impressed that he has allowed Casagrande to use the Gilman facilities since 1997, and six current Greyhounds starters came out of the MUYFA.

"It's critical to football, because football is generally a big man's game, and all of us big guys never got to play until we got to high school," Poggi said.

"For every kid who can make the Pop Warner 140-pound limit, there's a hundred who can't, so what Billy [Casagrande] is doing is a great service."

"You look at the USA Today national high school rankings," Casagrande said, "and the top teams come from the states where the bigger kids get a chance to play in middle school," a reference to California, Florida, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

In this area, recreation league teams in lacrosse, baseball, basketball, soccer and weight-restricted football have traditionally served as feeder programs for high school teams. Now, Casagrande is creating the same kind of opportunity for bigger boys who want to play football at middle-school age.

After playing soccer for eight years, Ben Gabbard of Cape St. Claire is finally getting a chance to play football, a sport he has always loved.

Gabbard was always too big to play in the Anne Arundel Youth Football Association weight leagues. He had to settle for being a soccer goalie.

Gabbard is a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Severn Middle School who is 6-0 and 210 pounds. The Anne Arundel recreation league's highest weight class is 140 pounds with equipment on, so Gabbard had no shot to play football until Tim Thomas organized and entered a team from Cape St. Claire to join the Anne Arundel Rebels of Glen Burnie in the MUYFA.

"It's been great for Ben," said Bill Gabbard, Ben's dad, who is 6-2, 230.

"He always wanted to play football, but there was no place to play until Tim started the team in our neighborhood. It's a chance to get skills under his belt before he gets to high school.

"It's been a great boost for him mentally and physically."

Bruce Seeley, who just celebrated his 25th-year reunion at Glen Burnie High, where he played tight end, also has a son playing for Cape St. Claire.

Seeley is 6-4, 240 and has an 11-year-old son, David, who is 5-5 and 160.

"It's been great for him, and I was telling the guys at our reunion it's a shame we didn't have something like this when we were coming up," Seeley said.

Thomas, who played football at Hereford High, is petitioning other groups to form teams in Anne Arundel County and set up either a division or an entire league.

"I hope to build a league in the county, and there's no reason why we can't, " Thomas said.

Anne Arundel has 125 teams playing in weight leagues from 75 pounds through 140.

Casagrande has encountered some opposition.

"The first excuse is they don't have that many big kids, but they don't advertise for the bigger boys and those boys don't come out," Casagrande said.

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