The Crusaders' Todd McQuinn (left) shakes hands with… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
In many ways, Evan Chase and Nathan Carothers are typical high school football players. Both love the primal battle in the trenches, both skirmish fervently on game day and both embrace their teammates as family.
Their high school teams, however, are anything but typical.
Chase plays for the Maryland Christian Saints and Carothers plays for the Central Maryland Christian Crusaders. Neither team has an actual school.
Both cater to high-school aged boys who are home-schooled or attend a school without a football program. They are among three home-school football programs in the state and 70 nationally that play 11-on-11.
With more than 23,000 students in the state being home-schooled according to the latest Department of Education numbers, a group of parents that included current athletic director David Arenz and coach Tony DiPaola founded the Saints in Kingsville in 2005, because they did not want their sons to miss out on the high school football experience. The Crusaders' first coach, Eric Jorgensen, joined with another group of parents in Carroll County who followed the Saints' model a year later.
Some suggest home-school programs could eventually change the landscape of local high school football, but for the founders of the two local teams, that was far from their mission.
"In Pennsylvania, home-school kids are allowed to try out for the team at their school [in their district]," said DiPaola, who has four sons. "But in Maryland, you're not allowed to do that, and that kind of bothered me, because there's nothing different about these boys than the boys in the public schools or the private schools. They're just high school kids who love sports."
That included Chase and Carothers, both seniors who plan to continue playing in college. The son of Towson University Hall of Famer Skip Chase has Towson high on his list. Carothers likes Stevenson, which fielded its first team this fall.
Three and a half years ago, Chase, who has been home-schooled all his life, figured he would have to attend a traditional school to keep playing football when his Bel Air rec program ended with the eighth grade. He wanted to keep playing, but he liked the home-school lifestyle.
"It pretty much came down to whether I would be public schooled or stay home-schooled, and football really came into it," Chase, 17, said. "I heard about the Saints, and I went to one of their kick-off meetings to hear what they were about. We kind of just fell in love with it, so I played my last year of rec and the next year I went out for the Saints and absolutely loved it from the first whistle."
Although Chase and some others — including Christian and Titus DiPaola and Crusaders coach Mark Zinnamosca's son, Christian — came to their programs with football experience, many others had little or none.
Carothers, 18, played just a half year of rec ball and then quit. Jorgensen, the chairman of the board at Carothers' elementary school, St. Stephen's Classical Christian School in Eldersburg, talked him into giving it another try.
"He told me about the games, and when I was in eighth grade, I went to every home game," Carothers said. "I was like, 'Wow, I want to be a part of this.' I saw the kids on the team were good teammates. They cared about each other and had fun playing."
Although both programs welcome players of any denomination, both have strong Christian foundations and many of their players are home-schooled for religious reasons. Both received support from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes from the start, and the coaches and players consider the programs a ministry first.
"There's a brotherhood about it," Crusaders senior Nick Kaufman said. "We're all here under God, and we pray before each practice and we pray before each game. It kind of puts it all in a bigger perspective. There's something bigger than yourself. This game has a bigger point to it than just playing football. You're here to build yourself into a better person."
On the field, the Saints are thriving with 62 players and a 6-3 record, their only losses coming to No. 1 Gilman, Loyola and Mifflin County, Pa. Last season, the Saints turned heads with a victory over Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference contender Archbishop Curley, then went on to finish 13-0 and win the National Homeschool Football Association championship in Florida.
As defending champions, the Saints are headed back to the national tournament in two weeks. In the meantime, they will go after their third Mid-Atlantic Christian Conference title in four years when they host Fairfax in the semifinals Saturday at 1 p.m. The finals are Nov. 12, when the Crusaders also will play Victory Christian for fifth place in the conference.