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Nations: Teams benefit from new district

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Jeff Nations

The newly formed Patriot Football Conference offers the best of both worlds for Massanutten Military Academy.

For the Colonels, it's a chance for a rivalry renewed and, at the same time, a rivalry retained this season.

That's because MMA and rival Fishburne Military School jointly moved from the Capital Area Football Conference (CAFC) to join the start-up Patriot this season, joining Randolph-Macon Academy, Fredericksburg Christian School and Quantico to form the new league.

R-MA athletic director and head football coach Frank Sullivan had been pushing to form the league the past two years as a way to find the Yellow Jackets a permanent home and stabilize what can be unpredictable scheduling as a Virginia Independent School Athletic Association (VISAA) independent.

Last year, the Patriot informally included R-MA and Quantico, both longtime members of the non-football playing Delaney Athletic Conference, and Fredericksburg Christian (also formerly in the CAFC).

"It was sort of a mini-league to see how it went," Sullivan said. "It's just a matter of none of the schools were affiliated with a conference in football and it's hard to get your kids all-state recognition and things like that if they're not all-conference. So we sort of started a conference of pretty similar schools -- all different in their own ways, but similar as well."

With MMA and Fishburne on board this season, the Patriot is set to begin play for a conference championship. MMA nearly gained a shot at one last year in the CAFC, but fell short of a spot in the conference title game by losing to Perry Street Prep late in the season.

"It gives us something to play for, something for the whole team to achieve," MMA junior Houston Walls said.

Even better, it re-institutes what was long a natural rivalry game between R-MA and MMA. Sullivan, who has been at R-MA as coach for six seasons, has faced MMA just once -- last year, in a scrimmage.

"I was never here when we played them before, so I don't know what went on there or how often we played them," Sullivan said. "But it's nice that they're in our conference. They seem like good people over there, so we're looking forward to it."

MMA coach Chris Gilliland thinks the Patriot is a natural for the Colonels.

"For all of us to be together and relatively close to one another, it will definitely be a benefit," Gilliland said. "Hopefully some natural rivalries will come out of it."

Strictly based on geography, the Patriot certainly promotes more intense rivalries. In the CAFC, the Colonels faced mainly Washington, D.C.-area schools like Perry Street Prep, Model and Avalon. Fredericksburg Christian was also a part of that league before moving to the Patriot.

Based on enrollment, R-MA will be the biggest school in the new Patriot Football Conference. The Yellow Jackets are in the VISAA's Division 2, the second-largest classification for state private schools. MMA and Fredericksburg Christian and Fishburne are one classification lower in Division 3, while Quantico is even smaller as a Division 4 program.

Reaching the VISAA state playoffs is the goal for all the programs; last year, Fredericksburg Christian was the only one of the current Patriot schools to land in the postseason. MMA finished its season with a 5-5 record, while R-MA was 3-6 last year.

Gilliland isn't sure the new alignment will do much for the playoff hopes of either R-MA or MMA this season, though.

"I think it will be a good fit for both schools," Gilliland said. "The conference as a whole, we've definitely got some tough teams. Fredericksburg Christian comes to mind when I think about tough teams.

"Obviously they made the playoffs this past fall. That's where we want to get to, we want to get to the playoffs. And that road will probably lead right through Front Royal, so hopefully we can kind of capitalize and get there this year."

Sounds like the makings of a long-lost rivalry, which is good news for both schools and area football fans.

-- Sports editor Jeff Nations can be contacted at jnations@nvdaily.com

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