Louisa County High School football tries to return to normal after 2011 earthquake

July 25, 2012

On an afternoon in late April, more than 40 teenagers were packed inside the trailer that currently serves as the weight room for the Louisa County High School football team.

The 25-by-40-foot room has enough space to fit three weight benches and two squat racks, but not much more. Players wandered from station to station as the song “Wild Boy” by MGK blared from a set of speakers. Suddenly, a heavy barbell fell to the ground with a resounding thud.

The floors were shaking again in Mineral.

This small town about 80 miles southwest of Washington has been rebuilding since it was the epicenter of a 5.8-magnitude earthquake last August. But the lingering impact of the earthquake — which shook the East Coast as far north as Maine — can be seen in “Pod L,” where the football team works out just 25 steps away from the school building that was damaged so severely that it is scheduled to be torn down in the coming months.

The county’s lone high school is now housed in 22 modular buildings and seven trailers. And its football team — which served as a rallying point for the community in the weeks immediately following the earthquake — is making the best of its new reality.

“We still have a football field and we still have fans that can come,” Louisa quarterback Zack Jackson said. “That’s all we’re worried about.”

Football roots are deep

High school football reigns in rural Louisa County. On Friday nights in the fall, a live lion paces in a cage near the football field and the game ball is parachuted in to midfield in front of sellout crowds. Fans pack in to the stadium near midnight before the first day allowed for practice — a “midnight madness” event borrowed from college basketball programs.

The earthquake hit at 1:51 p.m. on Aug. 23, just three days before the Lions’ season-opening game against Eastern View. Coach Jonathan Meeks, who was teaching a gym class at the time, remembers seeing heavy industrial lights swinging and smashing against the ceiling.

The earthquake lasted less than a minute. As Meeks milled around outside after the shaking stopped, a player approached him.

“Coach, we still have practice today, right?” the player said.

They didn’t, and the season opener was canceled. The football stadium was not harmed in the earthquake, but the school was devastated. The majority of the damage was in the portion built in the 1970s, though damage was scattered throughout the building.

Ceiling tiles came down, concrete and tile walls showed significant cracks and damage and some of the building’s brick walls also were cracked and shifted.

Meeks went home to find the inside torn apart. “Completely ransacked,” he said. A handful of Louisa players were forced to move from their homes.

Junior fullback-linebacker Jared Koss got off his bus on the day of the earthquake to find his house, which his parents were in the process of purchasing, with massive damage.

“Everything looked normal [on the bus ride home], but you had that eerie feeling to it, you knew something wasn’t right,” said Koss, whose family has since moved into the home of a high school friend of his father. “When I got home that’s when I saw my house and the two chimneys in the yard and I was in shock.”

Classes did not resume for three weeks, but the football team was back on the practice field the day after the earthquake. The Lions hosted their first game just 10 days after the quake and beat rival Orange County, 48-21.

“It was probably immeasurable how important that [first football game] was,” said Mike Parsons, the school’s athletic director. “As far as the school system, it’s a huge part of the community, so many people have kids in the system. It was really nice for everybody to get back together at the school. It was just a small sense of accomplishment that we had some sense of normalcy.”

Said Byron Mehlhaff, an insurance agent in Louisa, “It was a way to sort of say, let’s just go and get our mind off what is troubling us for the next three or four hours and do something different.”

Louisa received reports of damage to 1,394 homes, according to Rich Gasper, the county real estate assessor. There was more than $16 million in damage to residential properties, Gasper said.

Only a small percentage of those, less than 5 percent, had earthquake insurance, leaving many families scrambling for funds to make necessary repairs.

“There is still work definitely that is going on,” Mehlhaff said. “There were people that had significant enough damage where the affordability part of being able to do [repairs] just wasn’t there for them.”

The county reported $61.6 million in damage to its public education facilities, including $44 million to the high school, according to a memo distributed by the county to the Virginia General Assembly in January. The high school building was eventually deemed unusable.

Classes resumed in September with a unique schedule. High school students used the middle school building on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Middle school students attended on Tuesday, Thursday and every other Saturday.

The high school, which has an enrollment of 1,380, is expected to be fully rebuilt by 2015. Until then, it is housed in the modular units spread out like a maze on an adjacent parking lot. The modular classrooms are like “a slice of bread,” Parsons said. They are stacked together to create a larger unit that might have 10 classrooms in one building.

One of those units was specially reinforced to make the weight room. Until this spring, the school used rental storage pods as makeshift locker rooms and equipment rooms.

The basketball teams played their home games last season at Monticello High in Charlottesville, though there is a plan to build a “bubble gym” with a regulation-size basketball court, according to David Szalankiewicz, Louisa County Public Schools director of facilities.

The football team finished with a 7-4 record, including a playoff win — the third team to do so in the school’s 72-year history.

“We’re starting to get our identity back in our building, or buildings I should say, but football is huge,” Parsons said. “People started talking about next season the day after we lost our playoff game to Powhatan. It is a community event. It’s the only high school in the county. There are people that come out that don’t have anybody on the team.”

‘We have no excuses’

Meeks, 32, is entering his second season as the Lions’ head coach and is facing a situation he never could have imagined when he first joined the coaching staff in 2002.

“We have no excuses,” Meeks said. “We have a weight room, we have practice fields, we have everything we need to do everything we can to get better. Is it as nice in appearance? No. But you can work just as hard with what we have.”

On an early summer day Meeks leads his players through sets of push-ups in front of the classroom. One month later he squats under center playing quarterback during drills, visor turned backward and upside down as the team goes through repetitions to learn defensive assignments.

Meeks recognizes the challenges that his team faces, but embraces them too. In the makeshift weight room, tacked up on a wall, is a picture of an opposing team’s gleaming weight room. Players periodically saunter over to the wall and stare at it as they lift.

He’s modified his team’s workouts to adapt to its unusual surroundings. In front of the weight room trailer is a small patch of mulch. Meeks calls that area “the yard,” after a prison yard. During team workout days, half of the group works out in the yard under the sun.

On some days, players walk behind the high school to an open practice field surrounded by trees and bookended by a rusty old high school upright. There, the players flip and use sledgehammers on tractor tires, run sprints with car tires above their head and run hills as substitute workouts.

“It’s big with the morale of the team to keep our heads up,” Koss said. “We’re facing adversity, but coach always preaches what you do when you face adversity shows what kind of man you are.”

An uncertain future still surrounds the school. One player told his father he never imagined he’d graduate from a school of trailers.

Yet the football team remains unshaken. Midnight madness is scheduled for Sunday night, and the team opens the season at home on Aug. 24. A big crowd is expected. The lion will be in its usual spot on the sideline. And for those few hours, the team will be whole again.

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