Two years ago, Xander McClure and Joey Felton were both members of Linganore High School’s football team.
While McClure is still with the Lancers, coming off a fine junior season, Felton had since moved on to play at Yale.
But over the summer, Felton reached out to his former teammate.
“He texted me and asked me if I wanted to play,” McClure said.
Sounded great to McClure. They’d be joining forces again on the football field in the fall, an opportunity that was a direct result of disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The team that reunited McClure and Felton is the Frederick Storm, an 18U 7 on 7 team. It was created to give players like McClure, who hopes to play at the next level, a chance to play and impress college coaches while high school sports is shut down for the fall because of the health crisis.
And as the 18U age limit and purpose of the team suggests, the relationship between McClure and Felton has changed since they last suited up together with the 2018 Lancers. Felton, who is all of 19 years old, is McClure’s head coach, and that’s just one of the changes McClure has experienced with the Storm.
Unlike past falls, McClure — a running back who used speed and crafty moves to elude would-be tacklers during long runs with the Lancers — is playing a brand of football that doesn’t use rushing plays, pads, helmets or tackling.
There are no more rivalries with other county schools, either. The Storm includes players from seven Frederick County high schools.
And the competition is stiffer. The Storm face opponents who have top-notch players from schools such as St. Frances Academy from Baltimore and Wise from Prince George’s County, teams local players don’t usually go against in the fall.
McClure had no problem with such changes. He jumped at the opportunity Felton presented to him, longing to play some type of football after it became clear that his high school team might not play a single game this fall because of the pandemic.
So did Jalen Huskey, a junior defensive back who transferred to Quince Orchard after starring for Middletown last season.
“I was pretty happy when I first found out about the opportunity from Joey Felton,” Huskey said. “I just looked at it as an opportunity to get more exposure.”
FORMING THE TEAM
The Storm are part of the Tri-Point Storm organization, which already fielded teams for younger football players. But after fall high school sports got postponed, the organization somewhat hastily formed the team to help fill the void for local prep players looking to play some type of football and add film to their highlight reels (all Storm practices and games are taped) in hopes of impressing college recruiters.
The new team for otherwise game-less local high school players was brought about by Storm directors J (short for John) Bittner and John Helmer. The impetus came when Helmer ran into the mother of Frederick High School player Zavian Johnson. Helmer knew Johnson years earlier, and eventually an arrangement was made to have the receiver catch balls thrown by Jackson Bittner, J’s son and a sophomore quarterback for St. John’s Catholic Prep.
John Helmer, a fellow Storm official who helped organize this year's 18U 7 on 7 team, was wowed by what he saw when Johnson and Bittner worked out.
“And I’m like, ‘Holy Cow, you’re a different player than I ever remember,'" said Helmer, who had seen Johnson play years earlier. "He never drops the ball, he has great cuts, great size.”
Wheels were set in motion to start the 18U 7 on 7 team. Johnson and Jackson Bittner are on the Storm, and the latter splits time at quarterback with Thomas Johnson senior Zach Buckley. The Storm also has players from Catoctin, Urbana and Walkersville and a coach who graduated from Linganore less than two years ago in Felton.
While a relatively recent high school grad in the early stages of his college football career normally wouldn’t seem like an ideal head coach candidate, these weren’t normal times.
Not only had Yale postponed its football season, but the school’s sophomore class — of which Felton is a member — would not be allowed on campus for classes. So, Felton decided to take off the semester as a full-time student. Bittner knew Felton well, the former Linganore star had worked out with Jackson, and also realized Felton was plugged into the local high school football scene.
“We needed a coach that I thought the boys would instantly gravitate to, they would respect and somebody who got them and had free time on their hands,” Bittner said. “He asked if his dad could help coach. I said sure. And from then, he knows so many people that play high school football in the area, having just graduated recently.”
EXPOSURE FOR COLLEGE HOPEFULS
Helping slightly younger players gain exposure to college programs struck a chord with Felton. It hadn’t been that long since he was doing that very thing, and he realized the recruiting process got completely upended by COVID-19 in 2020.
Over the summer, college prospects got to attend few, if any, camps where they could showcase their skills to college coaches.
“I wasn’t able to go to any,” Huskey said. “I was invited to a couple, but unfortunately they got canceled.”
And with high school sports postponed until early 2021 throughout most of Maryland, including Frederick County, seniors like McClure and juniors like Huskey wouldn’t have a chance this fall to make an impression on college coaches.
“We needed to do something. They just really want to help out, and so do I,” Felton said. “I think Frederick’s a good area, and we have a lot of good athletes. But not that many college coaches respect the area, I guess, so having the opportunity to play these great teams and be successful, I think it’s helping these guys out.”
Playing stiff competition was a must for the Storm, an independent team that plays all of its games on the road. Powerful opponents, with highly regarded recruits on their rosters were scheduled. The Storm played S.T.A.R.S., a team comprised of prospects from powerhouse St. Frances and other parts of Baltimore, on Oct. 1. The Frederick team pulled out a 23-22 win.
McClure, whose ability to catch passes of any length with the Storm complement his skills as a ballcarrier for the Lancers, likes playing high-caliber teams.
“We’re kind of the underdogs in the situation,” he said. “We all bonded right off the bat, and then we go down to D.C. and play these teams that have like four- or five-star [players] on them, all types of stars on them, and then beat ‘em. It’s good to get out there and see what we can all do when you put all that talent together.”
Granted, 7 on 7 is a different brand of football. Quarterbacks don’t face a pass rush but have four seconds to release a pass, and players are down when touched with one hand. But it’s something.
“It’s pretty close to a game-like look, just without the pads, pretty much for me, especially with my position,” said Huskey, a lockdown cornerback who had 13 interceptions for the Knights last season. “It’s definitely not real football, but it’s not a bad substitute.”
A COUNTY ALL-STAR TEAM OF SORTS
Huskey and McClure — a running back at Linganore who has played slot for the Storm — are just two of the Storm players who earned Frederick News-Post all-county first-team honors last season. Others are Catoctin running back Carson Sickeri (the News-Post 2019 Co-Offensive Player of the Year), Frederick defensive back Trayvon Neal, Linganore defensive back Brady Domroe and Linganore tight end Cole Mitchell.
Defensive back-wide receiver Jaylen Dotson, who used to play for Middletown and now is on Good Counsel’s team, also plays for the Storm. And the roster also includes players who either got all-county second-team or honorable mention recognition last season.
“It allows us to bring in kids from all these different high schools and having them meld together,” Helmer said. “And the cool thing is when you watch them out there, you’d never know these kids played at rival high schools. They all love each other. That’s the coolest part about it.”
Felton said the players have also been accepting of a coach just a couple years older than them. Like all good coaches, he encourages players to give him useful input. Unlike many, though, he also has the ability to take the field and give some of them hands-on experience during practices.
“I am 19 and I’m a college football player, so I give the DBs a hard time,” Felton said. “We’ll do a lot of one-on-ones, just me and them, and that I feel it helps them a lot because getting coached about one-on-one coverage is something that a lot of these guys don’t get very often.
“I feel like they can learn a lot from just doing multiple reps against somebody that’s fast or, another wide receiver on our team is big,” he said. “[They] can just take their experience against me and a bigger guy and it’ll help them with their game.”
Like games, practices are filmed, so players aren’t likely to slack off. Of course, game film against opponents like The Lab, S.T.A.R.S. or Team STN (comprised of Wise players) might give college coaches in late 2020 a better idea of how well the Frederick County players performs.
The Storm doesn’t plan to compete after participating in a tournament on Halloween, but it has already allowed players to amass highlight reels.
“We’ve already gotten hours and hours of film on them all. So it just gives them another advocate to contact college coaches and stuff on their behalf,” Bittner said. “And in this year crazy year of COVID, these [Class of 2021 athletes] especially, they need all the help they can get because they’re at such a disadvantage compared to kids in other years. It’s been really tough for them.”
The Storm even helped one local athlete who had flown under the football radar, Buckley. Buckley, who also plays baseball at TJ, stopped playing football as a freshman at the school, where the varsity football program shut down in 2019 before being revived this year.
“He’s been great for us. He has played against some really stiff competition and he’s getting college interest,” Bittner said. “This probably couldn’t have happened in any other year but a COVID year, so he’s really all of a sudden thinking maybe I want to be a quarterback in college.”