Why did three 10th-graders line up across from Lake Braddock defensive lineman Reece Burnett?
It sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it?
To see if they could keep him from getting to the other side of the line of scrimmage, of course.
It’s funny because the three kids, even though they combined to weigh something close to 600 pounds, never had a chance against the mountainous 330-pounder who might be one of the strongest football players in Fairfax County.
“He just decides which one of us is the weakest and runs him over,” said one of the sophomores before moving on to another drill.
The junior varsity players practicing with Lake Braddock’s 8-0 varsity squad might not know it right now, but getting their teeth kicked in by a player bound to see some action in college next year will only help them in the future.
Centreville is the only Fairfax County high school ranked higher than Lake Braddock in the VHSL’s 6A North, so it’s not as if the younger kids at the Burke school are getting tossed around by nobodies. When a scrawny wide receiver catches a pass from Caleb Henderson in practice, he’s receiving a ball from one of the most recruited quarterbacks in the country. When a young defensive back tries to guard AJ Alexander, he’s working against a player who already has a scholarship offer from the University of Virginia.
And when those linemen try to stand up to Burnett, they’re learning valuable lessons, like how to deal with contact from a guy who outweighs them by more than 100 pounds.
“You can’t come out soft. You’ve got to start hitting from the beginning of the game,” Burnett said when asked about one thing he knows now that he didn’t know as a sophomore. “Or, sometimes on offense, your coach tells you to block one guy in practice, but in the game, things happen differently. If you see somebody who’s going to [disrupt] the play, you’ve got to block him.”
That’s the kind of value an experienced player brings to the game. It’s why Bruins coach Jim Poythress builds his roster with this tenet: “All things being equal, I’m going to play the younger guy. Even maybe if he’s a little bit less, because I’m going to get two or three years out of him, as opposed to a guy who’s a one-year band-aid.”
According to Burnett, 75-80 percent of Lake Braddock’s key contributors are seniors who have the Bruins poised for a long playoff run that might rival the team’s successive 12-win seasons in 2009 and 2010. Last year the team was eliminated by Oakton in the first round of the playoffs despite going 8-2 in the regular season.
It makes one wonder if other top coaches around the area have the same point of view. Would you rather build for one big season every few years, or do you want to ensure a good, but not great season all the time?
Oakton, at 4-4 with Westfield and Herndon ahead, is on the playoff bubble and feeling the pain of rebuilding after losing a slew of seniors who helped the team reach the state final four last year. In coach Jason Rowley’s experience, the Cougars usually need three or four years between deep playoff runs. But does he absolutely know why? No.
“I don’t know if that’s been purposeful, but it’s always been the cycle,” said Rowley, who was a long-term assistant coach before taking over the head job three seasons ago. “We always try to put our best football players on the field at Oakton. Sometimes we’ll make the decision to go younger, with the potential of players coming down the road, especially if we’re struggling a little bit. But my perspective usually is that if seniors who have put a lot of hard work and effort in are as good, we’ll try to get them that opportunity. Sometimes I’ll put a sophomore over a senior just because he’s younger, but that’s rare.”
Rowley noted that Centreville is stocked with a stellar junior class this year. While the Wildcats should do well in the playoffs this season, look out — they could be even stronger in 2014.
District rival Westfield is a unique football team for Northern Virginia. With over 80 players on the varsity roster, the seniors alone would outnumber some other schools’ entire squad.
Aside from the monumental cost of outfitting 200 players on three teams, Kyle Simmons, Westfield’s coach since 2011, said managing that many bodies can be a logistical nightmare.
“They don’t give me any extra money or extra staff to collect all this paperwork, to keep track of them, to communicate with their teachers,” he said. “It’s very time-consuming and sometimes it can wear on you a little bit. You want to deal with game planning and football stuff, but there’s a lot more to it.”
When it comes time to making decisions on players, the Bulldogs will side with a senior who’s been in the system the longest.
“I don’t think you’re helping yourself if you develop young kids and when they become seniors, you don’t play them because you’re going to try to develop an even younger kid,” Simmons said.
However, talented young players at Westfield will find themselves with key special teams roles and a solid junior varsity workload. “That’s where I would put some guys who I know are going to be players for us on Friday nights in the future.”
Right now 15 of 22 Westfield starters on offense and defense are seniors. But not the quarterbacks: Simmons has the luxury of playing two young quarterbacks this year — Billy Pickett (sophomore) and Mason Scoville (junior) — who should pay dividends in the future while still winning (6-2) this year.
“For us, the number one position you’d want to have an experienced player at is quarterback, and then center because of the offense we run, an inside-outside zone with a lot of communication. It’s important you have a center like ours (Chris Nicoll), who is a third-year starter. Then safety, because he’s directing traffic back there, and one of the inside linebackers.”
As Chantilly coach Mike Lalli points out, inserting all your seniors into the starting lineup doesn’t guarantee your younger players won’t see the field. Just ask Centreville or Lake Braddock.
“If you have teams like Centreville and Lake Braddock who are doing really well and are both undefeated this year,” Lalli said, “a lot of their starters won’t play in the second half, so the backups are getting experience that way.”
Schools with a long winning tradition and stability at head coach are often able to prevent the school community from getting too involved with the football program. The four schools mentioned in this story have combined for just a handful of losing seasons in the last decade. That means the coaches have a fair amount of autonomy when it comes to their starting lineup.
Some communities, however, see it differently. Eric Henderson, now an assistant coach at Lake Braddock since 2012, had been the head coach at West Potomac. When discussing the premise of this story, he warned that the community isn’t always willing to accept a coach’s decision on playing time. The idea that a player whose “time has come” might get beaten out by a player who is better can cause some hard feelings.
Regardless of what grade a player is in, coaches like Poythress are confident the best teams will reveal themselves in the playoffs. Some players are so good, their age or grade becomes irrelevant.
“The two years Westfield won the state championship, they had a Division 1 quarterback (Sean Glennon in 2003 and Mike Glennon in 2007), and they had Evan Royster (2007) and Eddie Royal (2003),” Poythress said. “Even the last time we won the region (2010) we had six or seven college players. [Some teams] are always going to be good, but if you get the two or three special kids, you can elevate it even higher.”