MSD, Riverdale are top of the class

Maryland's collection of high school independent teams is an interesting lot -- ranging from a deaf school national power to a public school that asked to withdraw from its conference. In between, there are programs on the rise and a collection of new start-up Christian school programs. The one thing they have in common is no league to call home.

Maryland School for the Deaf and Riverdale Baptist are the state's top independent programs. MSD won its sixth deaf school national title in the last eight years in 2008, and Riverdale Baptist won the National Association of Christian Athletes Division I title. Bishop Walsh is coming off its best season since going 9-1 in 1991. Meanwhile, Clear Spring and Hancock, which combined for one win last year, look to become more competitive in 2009. Clear Spring was a member of the Monocacy Valley Athletic League but after going winless in 31 league games over the past five seasons, it requested a two-year hiatus from league competition.

Maryland School for the Deaf has lost only three games in the past seven years, but this year will be more challenging. The Orioles lost 17 players from last year's team -- 14 to graduation, including Small School All-State linebacker Ryan Bonheyo, who is now at Towson University. Junior Todd Bonheyo moves to quarterback after starting as a defensive back last year with eight interceptions. Shawn Harrington, a 6-foot-6, 200-pound tight end, returns for his junior season after a team-high 18 catches for 263 yards last year. The team's ground game will be led by Ethan Kramer, who rushed for 731 yards in 2008, and Todd Rewolinski, who rushed for 659 yards. Coach Andy Bonheyo has a 75-8 record since taking over the MSD program nine years ago. He has a 20-year coaching record of 166-47-1.

Bob Shields has built a solid program at Riverdale Baptist, where the school once had trouble even fielding a team. Standout defensive back Brian Burns has committed to Temple. Receivers Steven Thames and Devin Goode are getting college attention. Riverdale Baptist opted to step up its competition level this year and opens the season with state power DeMatha. Riverdale is coming off an eight-win season, however, it returns only three offensive and four defensive starters. The team's strength appears to be on defense with Burns, who has 13 interceptions over the past two years, along with linebackers Paxton Queen, Trevon Bennett and Marcus Bolding.

Dylan D'Atri's numbers were down, but it resulted in wins at Bishop Walsh. D'Atri, who has over 3,000 rushing career yards, benefited in first-year coach Mike Page's offensve by not having to be the workhorse. The result was a 9-1 season, matching the program's best record since 1991.

Clear Spring is leaving the MVAL just when things are beginning to look promising. The Blazers bring back seven offensive and six defensive starters. However, coach Craig Bathgate said leaving the MVAL was the right decision for now. "The kids where doing the right things but we were unable to execute against the established programs," he said. "We're going to try to get on the right track and we gotta start somewhere. [Leaving the MVAL] is not permanent. We'll be back." Clear Spring returns a pair of standouts in offensive lineman Doug Morgan, who is 6-5, 300 pounds, and linebacker Ken Bosic, who is 5-10, 205. Clear Spring only has three wins in the five-year history over the program. Bathgate feels an independent schedule will allow the the Blazers to face more reasonable competition over the next two seasons.

Hancock is in a situation similar to Clear Spring, plenty of returners, yet struggling for wins. The Panthers were 0-9 last season. Second-year coach Dave Mahaffey got the job late last summer and feels with a year of work with the program should produce results this fall. Hancock returns nine offensive and eight defensive starters. The team's standouts are linebackers Nick Harvey and Jarrod McCoy. Mahaffey, who used to be a college coach, said both Harvey and McCoy are college material. A key to Hancock's offense will be sophomore quarterback Garrett Wiles. He started two games last year before a season-ending injury. By the end of the year, Hancock was down to its fourth-string quarterback.

Avalon School returns to varsity football action following a two-year hiatus. The school had a varsity team in 2005 and 2006, but went to a JV-only program for the past two years. First-year varsity head coach Jerry Sarchet said there had been only three seniors in the program since 2006, and last year's team even let eighth graders compete to fill the roster. This year's squad has four key seniors in tailback Jack Lively, athlete John Funk, lineman/linebacker Clay Longest and linebacker Dan Kline.

Speaking of returns, Leonard Hall is back into varsity high school football for the first time since 1974. This junior naval military school is based in Leonardtown and will play Forestville, Rising Sun, Riverdale Baptist and Rockville.

Elkton Christian opted to fold its program at the end of July. Central Maryland Christian and Maryland Christian are expected to field teams, and a new school joins the mix as Leonard Hall Academy will put a varsity football team on the field for the first time.