With the kickoff of the 2014 high school football season quickly approaching, our reporters will be out at local practices checking in with contenders, dark horses and rebuilding teams alike as they gear up for the fall. Here is the first installment of our Camp Countdown:
Two by two the Westfield players walked in lockstep, past the frozen glare of the Bulldog statue resting at the gate entrance, down the hill as their cleats rhythmically clicked to the tune of “300 Violins” blaring from the speakers and onto the turf field steaming from the fresh midnight dew.
“I didn’t think the line would ever stop,” Bulldogs Coach Kyle Simmons later said after he watched 130-plus players stream out of the locker room for the first practice of the 2014 season.
About an hour earlier, a rain storm had threatened to dwindle the turnout and damper the excitement for Westfield’s fourth annual midnight practice — or so some thought.
“It’s not always fun being in the rain, but I was excited,” senior quarterback Mason Scoville said. “I was ready regardless. And then as we walked out and the rain slowed to a drizzle, it was like everything was set in place. Finally, football season was here again.”
For Westfield, which boasts two state titles and a 35-5 record over the last three years, football season almost always arrives with high expectations. In each of the last three seasons, the Bulldogs have seen their run end with a loss in the region title game, every defeat heightening the anticipation that maybe this year will be different.
Several parents and community members came out to show their support on the night, forgoing sleep for their first glimpse of the Bulldogs under the lights. And for the first time in four years, the police did not make an appearance at practice to tell the team to turn down its stadium music.
“Hopefully, that’s a good sign for the season,” Simmons joked.
Like most schools, the Bulldogs have their holes to fill due to the graduation of players like running back Tyler Thrasher-Walker (now at James Madison), wide receiver Devon Burns and defenders Tim Curry, Connor McNulty and Tyler Sevener. But with one of the region’s largest student populations at its disposal, the team again has the tools to reload.
Running back Evan Gray enters his senior campaign riding the momentum from last season, when he stepped in for the injured Thrasher-Walker to rush for 269 yards and three touchdowns across the last two games. The fast, powerful rusher will team with 5-foot-10 Dominique Pearson to create an explosive backfield duo that can also create big plays out of the flats on short passes from Scoville.
“I’ve been working on my endurance and footwork to get ready for more carries this year,” Gray said. “I’d say we’re very hungry. The way last season ended has been on my mind for a long time now.”
The same goes for Scoville, who was shaky at times during his first season as a starter but noticeably exudes more confidence entering this fall. The senior has been working on his ability to read coverages at the line and built his arm strength to better utilize receivers like Justin Barrow and Tyler Scanlon, a junior basketball standout who transferred this past week after spending his first two years at Paul VI.
“There’s a lot of tradition here for me with both my brothers going to Westfield,” said the 6-foot-5 Scanlon, who could also see some time at quarterback. “I’ve been thinking about it all summer, worked out with some of the guys and I showed up [Monday morning] to say I’m here.”
Defensively, the Bulldogs are led by safety James Gibson (an Army commit) and junior linebacker Jack Clancy, two physical and versatile playmakers who have a nose for the ball, as witnessed by Gibson’s two fumble recovery touchdowns.
Gibson was one of the most vocal players during the 90-minute midnight practice, barking out commands and directing newer players from his safety spot before joining Gray in leading the team in cool-down stretches.
Their play, along with emerging defensive lineman Brandon Flores and linebacker Cam Wooden, will be critical in Westfield successfully navigating a challenging schedule that includes its share of tests in Lake Braddock and Stone Bridge as well as Conference 5 (formerly Concorde District) rivals Centreville (the defending state champ), Chantilly, Robinson, Oakton and Herndon.
“We’ve got the guys there; some of them are just untested at areas like the offensive line,” Simmons said. “We have the tools to be competitive, but it’s up to us to put it all together.”