No. 1 Centreville, No. 2 Gonzaga gear up for a nationally televised football showdown

A behind-the-scenes look at the week leading up to the nationally televised matchup between No. 1 Centreville and No. 2 Gonzaga. (Nick Plum and Samey Charapp for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)

Wednesday marked the second day of school at Centreville High, a time typically reserved for teacher introductions and syllabus overview. But with Gonzaga’s football team and ESPN’s camera crew set to descend upon campus Friday for a rare matchup of nationally ranked public and private school powers, a handful of student government association members sprawled across the white-tiled floor of Demby Banbury’s leadership class, carefully painting bold, block-lettered signs for their first assignments.

As leaders of the 12th Man spirit club, the students are tasked with turning the football stadium into a home intolerant of visitors. Two students etched “WILDCATS > BULLDOGS” in large, black font, creating a banner perfect for Centreville’s annual contest against crosstown rival Westfield but not for Friday’s unfamiliar foe, the Gonzaga Eagles.

“Wait, Gonzaga’s mascot isn’t the Bulldogs?” one student asked, her voice rising with concern. “I thought you said Bulldogs?”

“Noooo, you said Bulldogs,” the other responded with a giggle. “It’s okay. We’ll just save it for the Westfield game.”

For one week, the usual priorities for Centreville and Gonzaga, the two top teams in The Post’s preseason football rankings, have been put on hold. By playing a private school, No. 1 Centreville will neither gain nor lose points in the Virginia High School League’s playoff ranking system, likely not affecting its bid to repeat as 6A state champion. And while No. 2 Gonzaga stands to garner national exposure for its budding team, tangible growth under new Coach Randy Trivers will come only by winning its first Washington Catholic Athletic Conference football title since 2002.

On Friday, however, both Centreville, a public school of 2,350 students, and Gonzaga, an all-boys’ private school with an enrollment of 960, will set aside their differences for the sake of parity, riding a buzz that has permeated their communities and demanded a rare national television platform.

“It’s a great opportunity for our school and for Centreville: the Virginia public against one of the privates,” Gonzaga Athletic Director Joe Reyda said. “It’s been a while since that’s happened, and I think it’s going to be a great game.”

Focusing on the details

Trivers sifted through one of three boxes remaining in his office Tuesday morning before pulling out an autographed football encased in glass. Carefully grasping the memorabilia from his 2004 Maryland 3A state title at Northwest High in Germantown, he walked by a desk covered with plaques, some still bound in green bubble wrap. After placing the case on a nearby shelf, Trivers strolled back around his desk and stared at the continuous loop of Centreville game film running on his computer screen.

The transition for Trivers since leaving Leesburg High (Fla.) in May and returning to his native region has been gradual, but after 19 years of coaching at the high school and college levels, he knows the season waits for no one.

His Gonzaga debut yielded a 42-3 win last week against Neshaminy High (Pa.). Centreville, however, presents a more difficult challenge. So as Trivers repeatedly rewound a play featuring Centreville’s wing-T offense, he dialed up one of his assistants.

“Coach, how much veer did we run in practice [Monday]?” Trivers inquired. “I don’t know much about their new quarterback, but from last year, I’m seeing a lot more veer than we talked about.”

A couple of floors below Trivers, the conversation also focused on Centreville’s rushing attack that amassed 3,458 yards and 57 touchdowns last fall. Word was the Wildcats’ top runner, All-Met senior and South Carolina commit A.J. Turner, won’t play because of a right wrist injury.

“I hope he plays,” Gonzaga senior running back Reggie Corbin said while hunched over a tray of French fries during lunch. “If we’re going to play the number one team, I want to play them at their best.”

Sitting across from Corbin, an Illinois commit who rushed for 192 yards and two scores in Gonzaga’s opener, were two of his best friends, nationally ranked defensive back Marcus Lewis and linebacker Rahshan Jones. All three sported their white home uniforms over polo shirts, reminding students to purchase one of the 3,000 presale tickets available for Friday’s game.

“I hope he plays, too,” Lewis said between bites into a turkey sandwich. “But man, our schedule is so tough. Every week is a big game. But the fact that Centreville game is number one versus number two . . . we got to win that!”

Not since Good Counsel and Robinson split two meetings in 2005 and 2006 has a ranked WCAC team played a Northern Virginia public power in football. But when national stalwarts Booker T. Washington (Fla.) and Hoover (Ala.) called Centreville Coach Chris Haddock following his team’s state title run, he began toying with the idea of veering outside his normal Fairfax County slate.

The logistics failed to line up with the two out-of-area schools, as well as traditional WCAC powers Good Counsel and DeMatha. So Haddock shifted his attention to Gonzaga. A chance encounter with then-coach Aaron Brady at a January conference allowed the two to hash out the details. And after T.C. Williams and Dunbar agreed to change their previously scheduled games with Centreville and Gonzaga, respectively, and play one another instead, the push began to bring ESPN to town.


Centreville Coach Chris Haddock, left, talks with running back Xavier Nickens-Yzer during practice in preparation for a nationally televised contest against Gonzaga. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

First-year Gonzaga Coach Randy Trivers snaps the ball to quarterback Nick Johns during practice earlier this week. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
‘It feels like a college game’

The nationally televised game will be the first for both Centreville and Gonzaga’s football teams, turning the players into local celebrities. Ever since the ESPN announcement last month, Centreville linebacker Tyler Love can’t go to the store without being asked whether the Wildcats are ready for Gonzaga. And come 8 p.m. Friday, Gonzaga alumni will be cheering the Eagles at viewing parties in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

“The games are always intense,” Gonzaga freshman Bill Cull said after purchasing six tickets for his family, “but this is different.”

So different that Centreville senior Caroline Wakefield had $70 in her pocket Wednesday to purchase tickets for friends at neighboring schools. Players had to fill out questionnaires while coaches offered extensive team overviews by conference call, providing in-game banter for the ESPN analysts during the three-hour broadcast. Centreville Athletic Director Jimmy Sanabria had bleachers set up on the track, supplementing the 7,500 stadium seats for a crowd expected to start tailgating some four hours before kickoff.

“It’s exciting and chaotic even,” Centreville senior Reagan Newell said. “It feels like a college game.”

As one of eight players in the game committed to play at a Football Bowl Subdivision school, Centreville’s Turner began elevating his offseason training back in March, fueled by the prospect of playing against Lewis, Alabama offensive line commit Richie Petitbon and other Gonzaga players he knew. The realization his wrist injury would keep him out of the contest floored him.

“I’ve been emotional and shed tears because I put so much into this game, and now that I can’t play, it’s like all is lost,” Turner said. “But it’s like Coach Haddock said, it’s about the team. So I’m here to encourage them.”

While Haddock had Turner suit up in full pads to run non-contact drills in practice, gaining mental reps as preparation for his return in the coming weeks, Centreville’s 14 other returning starters, including good friend Charles Tutt, have challenged themselves to step up in Turner’s absence.

“C-Tutt is putting in work out there, baby!” the smiling second-team All-Met cornerback and wide receiver exclaimed while prancing to the sideline during a break in Monday’s practice.

Haddock likened Tutt to Deion Sanders, partly for his playful confidence but more for his versatile ability in all three phases of the game, complementing the two-way skills of fellow seniors Xavier Nickens-Yzer and Jake Behne along with Cincinnati commit Taylor Boose, who ran for 1,162 yards last season.

Boose’s bruising style, along with new starting quarterback Joe Ferrick, again had Trivers discussing the veer with his players on the sidewalk as they waited to be bused Tuesday from Gonzaga to an open field at Soldiers Home Cemetery.

“I’m telling you we have to play this thing strong and tight,” Trivers said while directing players through a makeshift formation. “I’m going to go over it again on the field, but I want you to see it here because we’ve got to be on top of it.”

With Gonzaga’s home field closed for the season because of construction of an underground parking deck, the 45-minute round-trip ride admittedly wears on the coaches and players, some of whom commute from Maryland and Virginia, making for 14-hour days packed with school, study hall, film study, practice and Metro rides.

“Man, this is killing me,” a grinning Trivers said. “But it all goes into what I keep telling the guys. We’re going to face adversity. You say you want to win a championship, but do you know and are you willing to do what it takes to win one?”

The adversity heightened an hour into practice. Spotted lightning sent players running for cover on the bus, yelling “Geronimo!” Unlike Centreville, which made the short trek from its turf field to the gym after also encountering lightning during its Monday session, the Eagles had to fight through traffic to get back to campus, where they finished practice in the gym.

The confined space magnified precision as tennis shoes squeaked with every cut along the purple and white hardwood floor, narrowing the players’ focus during a week that demands single-mindedness yet oozes with interference.

“Men, at the end of the day, this is a week two football game. Don’t let in the outside distractions,” Trivers said at the close of practice. “Remember the word of the week: Opportunity. Embrace the opportunity we have to get better together, all right? Love it, baby. Love it. . . . Okay, let’s bring it in.”

Brandon Parker is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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