Which is stronger in football, the Prince George's County 4A League or 3A/2A/1A League?
When asked that question, Henry A. Wise High School coach DaLawn Parrish paused and then broke out laughing.
“Of course, I'm going to be biased, because I'm in the 4A League,” Parrish said. “So, I'm going to say the 4A League.
“On paper, I don't think it's close. But again, you wouldn't know until you play.”
Then, Parrish resisted further inquiries into the difference between the leagues.
“No coach wants to say something where they can put it on their bulletin board,” he said.
Parrish is concerned because his team plays Frederick Douglass, a 2A team at 7:30 p.m. Saturday as part of the Prince George's Pigskins Classic, an event that also pits 4A Eleanor Roosevelt against 2A Gwynn Park (7:30 p.m. Friday) and 4A Suitland against 2A Potomac (4:30 p.m. Saturday).
The opening weekend of high school football also features 4A Bladensburg at 2A Largo, 1A Central at 4A High Point, 2A Friendly at 4A Parkdale and 4A Laurel at 1A Surrattsville.
Since Prince George's County allowed for more flexibility in non-conference scheduling two years ago, 4A teams have played 3A/2A/1A teams to a 2-2 draw. In 2012, 6-5 Flowers beat 7-4 Largo and 3-7 Crossland beat 0-10 Parkdale. In 2011, 9-4 Flowers beat 3-7 Largo and 4-6 Crossland beat 2-8 Parkdale.
But the leagues haven't matched up in a schedule like this before, both sides in clear contrast and seeking any extra motivation.
Parrish need not worry much. Many 3A/2A/1A coaches agreed that the larger schools have an advantage, though one disagreed on the record.
The Gazette asked the county's 22 public-school coaches which league is stronger, and 16 responded.
Overall: 11 chose 4A, one chose 3A/2A/1A, four abstained.
Of the 4A coaches: Seven chose 4A, none chose 3A/2A/1A, zero abstained. Of the 3A/2A/1A coaches: Four chose 4A, one chose 3A/2A/1A, four abstained.
Perhaps that poll wasn't representative of many coaches' true feelings. Frederick Douglass coach J.C. Pinkney, Gwynn Park coach Danny Hayes and Friendly coach Peter Quaweay — who oversee 3A/2A/1A's highest-ranked teams — were among the abstainers.
“The stronger teams in the 3A/2A/1A don't have a problem playing a 4A,” said Potomac coach Ronnie Crump, who cast the only vote for the 3A/2A/1A. “You can come to our meetings and find that out.”
Said Parrish: “We have a tight coaches' association, so I know everybody in there is competitive, and you want to say your league is better.”
For the 4A, the advantage is simple. The schools are larger — between 34 percent and 236 percent bigger — than 3A/2A/1A schools. That means a larger pool of potential players from which to pick.
Many 3A/2A/1A coaches say that the 11 players on the field, not the population of their schools, matter. A couple cited Douglass, a 3A/2A/1A team that spent the 2005 season in the 4A. That team went 12-0 against its county 4A competitors and beat them by an average score of 36-6, including a pair of playoff wins to win the region.
Pinkney said his 2005 team was the most talented he ever had, perhaps not making it the best example of 3A/2A/1A superiority.
“It would be premature for me to assume that it would be like that no matter what year we were up in the 4A or so on,” Pinkney said. “I just think, that year, we had a lot of good things going for us.”
Still, Pinkney said many doubted his team's ability to compete in the upper league, and he relished proving them wrong. So did Crump.
“There's this theory out here in the county that because you're a bigger school, you think you can beat a smaller school,” Crump said. “I don't think that's true in this area. I think that's true somewhere else in most cases, but in this case, in this county, I don't think that's true.”
Parrish and Crump said they were rooting for their league to win the other games of the Pigskin Classic besides their own.
Pinkney said, on one hand, he'd root for league-mates Potomac and Gwynn Park. On the other hand, Douglass is competing with those teams for playoff berths.
Hayes didn't state a preference for the Classic, which has a format suggested by the county's coaches.
“We're just doing things to get everything riled up,” Hayes said. “But basically, I don't even look at it in that aspect of competition. We're all Prince George's County.”
But across the county, many more coaches are watching this weekend's game with league bragging rights at least in the back of their minds.
“I don't think you're going to get too many coaches to just flat-out say our league is better. You may have some 4A schools, they probably say that their league is better, because they have more numbers,” Pinkney said. “But I'm not a fan of that philosophy. I just really want to see us play. I want to see our teams play, and I want to see how it works out.”