The Avalon School doesn’t have a football field, so the Black Knights practice at Mill Creek Towne Park in Gaithersburg. It’s a swath of grass bracketed by two goal posts, nestled at the intersection of Shady Grove Road and Midcounty Highway.
Hundreds of people drive by the field on their evening commutes. What they see looks like a typical summer football practice: a group of kids — some tall, muscular football types, some small, skinny and dwarfed by the others — running around.
But this is no typical football team. Led by Tyree Spinner, its new coach, Avalon — a tiny all-boys private school with minimal football tradition — has drawn players from around Montgomery County to start building one. Spinner has used his charisma — the 6-foot-7, 250-pound former University of Virginia recruit has a big personality and a bigger reputation — and Avalon’s private school flexibility to draw players from far and wide.
As of this week, Spinner has lured more than a dozen boys from other Montgomery County high schools to Avalon — a migration that has angered football coaches who lost some of their best players to what many believe is poaching, a violation of an unwritten rule that coaches shouldn’t recruit players already on other high school rosters.
Quarterback Bryan Strittmatter left Churchill after transferring from Good Counsel midway through last year to play his senior season for Avalon. Pallotti quarterback Isaiah Robinson also transferred, joined by two players from Magruder and Grant Ibeh, who started out at Wootton but later transferred to Watkins Mill.
Worst hit was Wootton, where Spinner coached before resigning in January for reasons he and the school would not disclose. The resignation was “not by choice,” he told The Post at the time.
Six Wootton players followed Spinner to Avalon, led by four-star recruit Trevon Diggs, brother of Maryland standout Stefon Diggs. Trevon is a rising junior with offers to play football from Florida State, Maryland and Penn State, among other top schools.
When Spinner left, speculation erupted among area football fans about where Diggs, who accumulated more than 1,100 yards receiving and scored 13 touchdowns last year, might land.
“I knew I was going to come [with Spinner] the whole time,” Diggs said. “He’s a great coach. He looks out for us, always there when we need him. Always.”
Despite an online petition drafted by his players at Wootton and tweets hashtagged #GetSpinnerBack, Spinner was left to look for a new team.
Former Avalon football coach Tad Shields reached out to Spinner. Shields led Avalon to a 5-5 season in the Capital Area Football Conference last year but was juggling his dual jobs as the school’s chief financial officer and football coach.
He and Spinner found what Shields called “shared values” that meshed with Spinner’s desire to build a team his way with players from a vast geographic area.
Spinner, 31, trains players with his brother and assistant coach Bryson, a former U-Va. and Episcopal quarterback, at their training company, Perfect Performance. Through those and other coaching endeavors, Spinner built an extensive network in and around Montgomery County and a reputation for strong recruiting connections.
“Obviously we’re not happy about losing any students,” Wootton Athletic Director Chris Thompson said. “. . . If that’s what the kids want, if they want a smaller school — Wootton’s a good school — I don’t know why anyone in their right mind would want to leave it, but it’s not for everyone.”
Thompson said he didn’t think anyone in the county, “public or private,” was particularly thrilled by the rush of kids to Avalon.
“Generally the privates don’t recruit kids that are already in high school,” Thompson said. “Whether Coach Spinner is recruiting them, I don’t know. But if it’s recruitment, I don’t think that’s a great idea.”
Neither do Montgomery County coaches, several of whom believe Spinner poached players from their rosters to bolster his own.
“Kids always think the grass is greener on the other side,” Churchill Coach Joe Allen said. “These days, a lot of people are tugging at these kids. They want instant satisfaction, so when someone says the right thing, what they want to hear, it makes it easy for them.”
According to some coaches, Spinner attended seven-on-seven tournaments at which his team wasn’t playing in the hopes of recruiting players, including his former Wootton charges.
“Here’s my thing: If a player was in a situation where he was happy and getting everything he needed, he wouldn’t leave,” Spinner said. “Not to say that other schools are doing a poor job, but maybe there’s something I offer that someone else can’t.”
Diggs and his former Wootton teammates say Spinner’s appeal lies in his ability to relate to them as a friend while still earning respect.
“He’s like a father figure and always there for family, friends, school,” Ibeh said. “For recruiting, he has a lot of connections, too, to big D-I schools and can give you great exposure.”
Non-Wootton players said Spinner’s reputation preceded him. Strittmatter said he realized Churchill wasn’t a good fit and reached out to Spinner, who he heard “really cares about kids, and he 100 percent shows it.”
“ I didn’t reach out to anyone, to be completely honest,” Spinner said. “They all called me. I can go through my phone, my e-mail. There’s literally 10 kids waiting, but we just don’t have the space.”
Avalon is a school of about 100 high school age students, and tuition runs $14,800 per year. Headmaster Kevin Davern said students needing financial aid file paperwork, and “some pay full tuition, some get a little break and some get a big tuition break, depending on their financial situation.”
Avalon leapt into prominence on the area recruiting scene in 2012-13 when transfers Rachid Ibrahim, now at the University of Pittsburgh, and Jacquille Veii, now at Maryland, attracted interest from some of the country’s top college programs. They were the school’s first NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision recruits.
But last season, Avalon’s football team had only 26 players.
Even with more than a dozen transfers, the Black Knights are still one of the smallest teams in the area, with a wide variety of shapes and sizes and a noticeable gap between highly recruited transfers like Diggs and lanky freshmen playing football for the first time.
That new-look roster will play its Capital Area Football Conference schedule against teams such as Perry Street Prep and Riverdale Baptist, which went unbeaten in 2013. The Black Knights also play Bullis this fall.
Though area schools play more high-profile schedules, and Avalon doesn’t have the home field or athletic resources of its opponents, some of the county’s most talented athletes continue to look Avalon’s way.
“It doesn’t matter,” Diggs said. “Wherever we play, as long as it has some grass on it, we’ll be okay.”