Centreville football team markets itself with help of social media

If Centreville High School fans don’t want to sit on the hard benches at Friday night football games, no problem. There are blue plastic “contour” seats available through the booster club for a season fee.

Should students need to know what to wear to the game — it could be a white-out or blue-out, or even toga or camouflage night — they need only check a Facebook group set up to inform them. If supporters come to the right game, they might get a giveaway flag or towel emblazoned with the Wildcats logo.

And while the only way to get the team roster at most high school football games is by purchasing a program, at Centreville there’s an app for that.

Third-ranked Centreville (13-1), which will play Oscar Smith (13-1) on Saturday in Charlottesville for the Virginia AAA Div. 6 state title, is one of the only high schools on the East Coast to have a Web application for its football team. The school also uses mass text messages to reach the student body with news about the team, and Facebook groups have been set up for both the student section and team for discussions and messaging.

“I think we’ve definitely hit all technology known to man,” said Jimmy Sanabria, Centreville’s director of student activities, who has spearheaded many of the advances. Before becoming a teacher, Sanabria, 42, worked at Disney in guest relations and attractions.

“I guess I have some Disney in me,” Sanabria said. “Everything’s a show. They laugh at me all the time here.”

The marketing approach is unique to the Washington area and has coincided with a resurgent team. Centreville, with an enrollment of more than 2,300 students, is back in the state championship for the first time since 2000, and Sanabria, for one, is not surprised. He said he knew when Coach Chris Haddock was hired prior to the 2010 season that this window would be a prime opportunity to re-energize the tight-knit community that shares a name with the school.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, “we never really lost and the fans were always there,” said Sanabria, who was on the coaching staff when the Wildcats won the title in 2000. “When that finally settled down I had to figure something out, especially when things weren’t going well, to make sure people wanted to come out and support the kids. You think, ‘What else can you do so people are always feeling good about the school and the community?’ ”

One of Sanabria’s first requests upon taking over as director of student activities in 2003 was for a video scoreboard. In 2004, the school put in a board at a cost of close to $70,000, so now when players score or make a big play, their picture and name shows on the screen on the far side of the field.

Sanabria said the board was paid off completely within three years through fundraisers, such as charity basketball games and dinners sponsored by area restaurants.

Other efforts included giveaways at games and theme nights to generate interest in students who might not otherwise come out to games. He also expanded Centreville’s use of “contour seats” for higher-paying boosters. The contour seats are blue plastic chairs with backs located just under the press box at the 50-yard line. Centreville has used them for a number of years, but Sanabria added three more rows over the past two seasons to increase revenue.

Centreville’s booster club has a tiered system that includes a “Wildcat Club,” which for $250 offers four passes to every home athletic event, preferred parking and two contour seats for home football games.

Centreville also uses Facebook and mass text messages to inform students about where fans may be meeting before and after games, or to discuss what students should wear to games — the past two games have featured a “white-out” and “blue-out.” On Friday, students will dress up for a “Haddock-out,” named after the coach’s usual sideline attire: sweater vest and tie. For Saturday’s state championship, they have organized a “black-out” to correspond with Centreville’s black jerseys.

“We can make announcements — that’s antiquated. We can put it on the marquee — that’s antiquated,” Centreville Principal Mike Campbell said. “You send text messages, kids get it. ‘Hey, buses [to Charlottesville], 10 bucks.’ Kids get that stuff. And Jimmy gets that.”

Even the “Touchdown Club,” basically a booster club for the football team, is unique in the area. Parents organized the club before last season, said Ron Willis, the club’s president, who said he grew up with a similar club in Oklahoma, a state with a rich high school football tradition.

“I really think it’s forward-thinking,” said Pete Bendorf, former football coach at South County and now the dean of students at Westfield. “As a DSA I give Jimmy credit, but some is the community. They’re really supportive of the football program.”

The approach that most sets Centreville apart from other schools is the Web application, which was set up by Willis and Steve Rondeau, a football parent.

Willis was “doing research about this time last year for some creative and innovative ways to help the program,” he said, and heard many of the top teams in Texas were using a mobile application.

He contacted a Dallas-based company to set up an app for Centreville. The application includes a roster function that has player pages, which consist of pictures and information on every player on the varsity, junior varsity and freshman football teams — as well as the cheerleaders, band and dance team.

Parents were able to purchase personal advertisements on player pages for $10, and the application also includes ads from local businesses that scroll across the bottom. The application, located at centrevillefootball.mobi, also includes schedules, standings, picture galleries, results and a news page.

All the community outreach will have the ultimate payoff Saturday, when six busloads of students and a caravan of area fans travel to Charlottesville for the state championship game.

“For the boys, when they walk out they’re just going to see they are a part of something bigger than themselves,” Sanabria said. “They are the ones we are cheering for, but they understand, when they see everything, we’re part of a community that supports us. And in turn, they’ll support the community.”

 
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