This is the first installment in a multi-part series on the Centreville High School football team as it attempts to defend its 2013 state title.
To everyone at Centreville High School, 2013 is the season that will never end.
The football team’s undefeated run to state championship glory last fall stretched into a visit from the MaxPreps Tour of Champions, which joined the Virginia Army National Guard in February to celebrate a program ranked No. 23 out of 16,000 teams across the country. That commemoration blended into a ring ceremony a few weeks later, which rekindled yet more buzzing, more chatter, more nostalgia for days so recently gone. When a pair of senators presented the team with certificates of achievement earlier this week, Centreville principal Martin Grimm wondered aloud if football season ever really ends around here.
The truth is that it’s only just beginning, as the team’s preparation for a new season officially started on Monday afternoon. Players and coaches reconvened on the gridiron for four “green days” of after-school practice, a week geared more toward ingraining fundamentals than learning play books.
“It’s kind of an introduction to how we do things,” said Centreville head coach Chris Haddock, now entering his fifth year at the helm. “We don’t spend a ton of time going over plays or anything like that. We spend time on some real basic foundational things so by the time we get to August, then we can actually start with football stuff and everything else will already be laid out.”
Haddock’s forward thinking isn’t unique in this area. The Virginia High School League passed a measure three years ago that softened its stance on out-of-season practices, enabling coaches to work with their athletes almost year-round. The Northern Region capped the number of green days — or days where players are allowed to work with coaches on individual skills — at 12 in each of the offseasons and 10 in the summer, not including weight training. Football teams around the state are taking advantage of that flexibility to get their guys acclimated before those critical summer months roll around.
Yet something different hangs in the air at Centreville High’s practice field this week. As running backs shuffle through cone drills and quarterbacks link with receivers on out-routes and linemen hurl themselves into padded dummies, you get the sense that something more is at stake, that whatever happens today could make or break an entire season. Last year’s undefeated run fills the Wildcats with pride, but it also hovers over them like a weight that needs to be lifted.
“We’ve had this goal set for a really long time, so I was excited to come back out here and start it back up,” junior lineman Kainoa O’Connor said. “As far as offseason training, I want to be known as the senior class that also went 15-0.”
The senior class departing next month will give new meaning to going out on a high note. They’ll leave the school knowing they led a historic team to double-digit victories in every game they played last fall, a triumphant last hurrah that culminated in the program’s first state title since 2000. They spent the winter months soaking up all the accolades while their younger teammates cloistered themselves in the weight room.
“At times it does get a little overwhelming, but you have to be able to enjoy some of that stuff because it just may never happen again,” Haddock said. “I think the kids have really enjoyed a lot of the attention, but I think today was a really great day to refocus us on moving forward and turning the page.”
For some Centreville returners, Monday wasn’t really the first day back on the football field. The Nike Football Training Camp, a half-day position specific training session for elite high school players, typically makes its Mid-Atlantic stop at Redskins Park, but last month it came to Centreville High. Over 100 players from across the state descended on the school for the chance to compete in a four-day camp in Oregon to determine the top 150 players in the Class of 2015.
AJ Turner, Charles Tutt, Taylor Boose, Xavier Nickens-Yzer, Justin Skule, David Liddle, Joe Ferrick and Jordan Brooks represented Centreville at the camp. Those players will enter the fall as part of the most heralded senior class in school history, a group that could have 10-12 future college football players in its ranks, including six in Division I. Haddock deals with their potential every day — he’s welcomed over 170 visits from college recruiters since the school year began in September, by far the most he’s ever encountered in a single year.
“They have to be ready to show their best if that opportunity presents itself,” Haddock said. “It’s kind of dual preparation in that they’re preparing for a great senior year but also for potential football beyond.”
Turner is the cream of Centreville’s plentiful crop of talent. The blazing tailback piled up 1,697 yards and 32 touchdowns last season. Since last fall’s playoff run, he’s received scholarship offers from top programs all over the map, including South Carolina, Ohio State, Michigan State, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Pitt and Miami.
Turner’s recruiting visits are as routine as his class schedule nowadays — he and his parents will be checking out Ohio State, Michigan State and Clemson this weekend — but for now he’s trying to keep his head grounded on the practice field. His challenge reflects the predicament of the entire team: Can a group with so much talent block out the distractions to meet its ever-growing expectations?
“I think for us it’s more about confidence and mental things because I think that we have the talent and the size and the speed and strength, but sometimes things just don’t go through our head,” said Turner, who has put on 20 pounds since last season ended. “Once we get stronger mentally, then I think we’ll be a great team... A great team does everything right every single time for every single rep. A good team does it most of the time. Everybody says they want to be great, but they don’t necessarily put in the work to get there.”
If everything goes according to plan, this team could go down as the greatest to ever come through Northern Virginia. For now, though, the Wildcats are through dealing with pats on the back.
“We’re not really trying to worry about that right now,” junior defensive back Charles Tutt said. “We’re just trying to focus on what’s going to make us better. We just need to give our all every single day and everything will fall into place.”