Simon Elementary off Mississippi Ave. in Southeast has a barren football field, an uneven plot of uneven land full of thick grass and small weeds. And even though it is a few blocks from Ballou’s new campus, which is projected to finish construction in Jan. 2015, Simon has become the perfect place to practice for the Knights in preparation for Friday night’s season opener at Theodore Roosevelt.
“I think it speeds a team up,” Ballou Coach Jason Lane said. “It’s not the greatest of surfaces. You got your hills, your divots, your holes, so pretty much, getting on a level field with no holes in it, no hard dirt or anything, it’s going to make us much faster. And we teach playing fast.”
Ballou has not had a single injury this summer, Lane said, which is something of a rarity for a preseason camp. The Knights are coming off a 5-5 season in 2012, which featured quality wins over Coolidge and McKinley Tech and competitive showings in losses to Wilson and Anacostia. With only a couple starters back (and only eight seniors on the roster) Ballou is now charged with trying to piece together a winning season with youth scattered across its lineup.
“The strength is pretty much the youth,” Lane said.
Not to say there isn’t talent. Sophomore wide receiver Delonte Moore, a transfer from Friendship Collegiate who earned a scholarship offer from Clemson over the summer and is attracting buzz from other elite colleges, is projected to be one of the DCIAA’s best skill players in 2013. The Knights lost a talented player in sophomore quarterback and linebacker Chrisdieon Alston, who transferred to Dunbar over the summer, but have an intriguing quarterback prospect in 6-foot-4, 190-pound Tirri Jones, who has a strong arm and athletic running ability in the open field and who will also handle all the team’s kicking duties.
“Tirri Jones is a very unique kid,” Lane said. “He’s a very calm mannered kid. He’s a very intelligent, smart kid.”
But the cornerstone of this team will be up front, where it boasts junior tight end and linebacker William Richardson (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) and junior offensive and defensive tackle Levon Livingston, who earned the nickname “Big DC” at the University of Georgia’s prospect camp earlier this summer. He grew to like the nickname. At 6-foot-7 and 250-pounds, Livingston said Monday that he added much needed strength over the summer — and gained confidence when the Ballou coaching staff took a group of players to several camps this past spring, including the Bulldogs event.
‘It was strange,” Livingston said of gaining attention on the recruiting trail, “but a good strange.”
Ballou will play all but one game on the road this season (it will play Anacostia Oct. 25 at Spingarn), and Lane said that an early-season test against perennial Maryland 2A power Douglass will be a key litmus test for his young team. The Knights also face a gauntlet stretch in the middle of the season, with consecutive road games against three of the top teams in the city: at Dunbar (Sept. 27), at H.D. Woodson (Oct. 4) and at Wilson (Oct. 11).
Ballou will prepare for all those games on the nagging grass at Simon, where running back Marquis Hamilton said the team is getting more and more comfortable practicing by the day. He’s another young player in a long line looking to make a name for himself this fall. The sophomore didn’t play as a freshman (he started at point guard for the Knights basketball team in the winter) and has been playing under the nickname “Boobie Miles” during camp. Its an affectionate nickname (Miles was a star running back at Permian High School in Odessa, Texas in the late 1980s and was a primary character in the popular sports book Friday Night Lights) given by his teammates and coaches, one that honors the speed that Lane wants his players to have.
“It will feel alot better [to play on turf Friday against Theodore Roosevelt],” Hamilton said. “Sometimes it’s hard out here, with your cleats getting caught. But you just gotta deal with it.”
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