Very few teams have been able to contain Loudoun Valley's Ben Cross and Park View's Nelson Stickley. Each has speed to burn (Cross runs the 40 in 4.5 seconds; Stickley in 4.55 seconds) and deceptive strength. They can turn a game around by breaking a big play; between the two, they have scored a total of 22 touchdowns on plays of 50 yards or longer. Here is a look at Cross and Stickley, as well as four other players who can alter the outcome for their teams.
Loudoun Valley, Sr., RB, 5-10, 200
There were times last spring when Ben Cross wondered if he had made the right choice, giving up baseball in favor of outdoor track. Now that football season is beginning, Cross is sure he did.
"I had never really done that much running before," Cross said. "Now I wish I had, because track helped me so much; it's made me faster. Of course, looking back to the spring when [Coach Mike Barton, the Vikings' football and track coach] was killing us in track--I threw up many times--I didn't think that."
Cross is bigger and stronger than he was as a sophomore, when he was named the Northwestern District offensive player of the year after rushing for 1,583 yards and scoring 23 touchdowns. He is in better physical condition than he was last year, when he missed the Vikings' first two games with a badly sprained ankle.
Cross ended up rushing for 1,008 yards in eight games last year (he played only the first half in his first two games back) but was slowed all season by the ankle. In 1998, "I went right from high school baseball into practicing with the [Babe Ruth] World Series team," Cross said. "I had no break, and my legs were burned out by the time football started. I felt sluggish right from the start. This year, I trained consistently for football, and I made sure I got plenty of rest."
Cross is hoping that will result in a return to his sophomore form, when he scored 11 touchdowns on plays of 50 yards or longer (he had one such touchdown last year). He knows teams will be focused on stopping him, though.
"We surprised everyone with Ben as a sophomore," Loudoun Valley Coach Mike Barton said. "Not anymore. Wherever he goes, he has 15 guys waiting for him."
Loudoun County, Sr., DE, 6-2, 240
Eric Gaskins has worked hard to make sure he no longer resembles the player he was as a freshman. That year, Gaskins was out of shape and bothered by asthma, and as a result, "I was sitting down half the time at practice," he said.
Not anymore. Gaskins has improved his physical condition every year. As a sophomore, Gaskins weighed 270 and could bench press 260 pounds. Now he weighs 240 and benches 355.
Gaskins is also faster; at a junior scouting combine in the spring, he ran the 40 in 5.2 seconds. After a summer of jumping rope and doing quickness exercises while wearing leg weights, Gaskins said his father timed him in the 40 at 4.9 seconds.
"When I was a freshman, I had no technique, because we didn't have much time to learn technique," Gaskins said. "Once I learned technique, it became much easier to play the position. Losing the weight has made me quicker and faster, and it's helped me endurance-wise."
Gaskins was dominant at times last season, often drawing double-teams. He recorded 58 tackles (second on the team), including 14 tackles for losses, and was named second-team all-Northwestern District.
"Last year, we put Eric in a situation where most teams want to run the ball--we put him on the strong side," Loudoun County Coach Pat McManus said. "Most teams have their best play there, and by putting Eric there, we're saying, find another best play. He was very consistent; I don't remember ever getting hurt on his side. And he'll be even better this year."
Park View, Sr., DT, 6-5, 227
Andrew Hoffman has not made an all-district football team. But ever since June, when Hoffman made a verbal commitment to attend the University of Virginia on a football scholarship, everyone has wanted to know about the senior defensive tackle.
"I feel like I've gotten a lot more attention [since committing], but I don't understand why. Why wasn't it there before?" Hoffman said. "I know that other coaches have seen what I can do. I ran into the Fairfax coach when I was working at Staples this summer. He was buying a desk. He came up to me and asked where I went to school, and then asked if I was number 74."
This is the first season Hoffman has been healthy for the first game. He battled knee problems as a sophomore, and then was on crutches with a broken foot as a junior. Hoffman returned for the second game of the 1998 season; he finished the year with 17 first hits, 14 assists, two sacks and one fumble recovery.
"Virginia said the same things we always say about Andrew," Park View Coach Mickey Thompson said. "He's big, and he can move."
Hoffman is faster this year, too. He went to speed camp over the summer to work on his quickness and explosiveness. "I'm in much better shape, too," Hoffman said. "During two-a-days [practice twice a day] last year, I was dying. This year, I'm ready to go."
Potomac Falls, Jr., PK, 6-3, 186
Greg Kuehn is feeling the pressure to perform well this fall, not only because of what he did last year as the Panthers' place kicker, but also because of what he did not do. The junior made all four of his field goal attempts last season--from 49, 42, 41 and 32 yards--meaning he has yet to miss a field goal in his high school career.
"Yeah, there's a little bit of pressure," said Kuehn, who was named second-team all-Northern Region. "I expect to make everything, but I know that I'll miss some. I won't freak out if I do. My goal is to hit everything inside the 30-yard line."
Kuehn is still making the transformation from soccer player with a booming goal kick to football place kicker. He attended a kicking camp in Pennsylvania over the summer, to improve his accuracy and consistency. Kuehn won the camp's competition for longest field goal with a 55-yarder and finished second in the accuracy competition.
He is hoping he gets a chance to attempt more than four field goals this year. He describes his range as "comfortable up to 40 yards, 50 yards is getting tough, and 60 is tough." He says he made two 60-yarders in practice last year.
"I feel blessed that we have somebody special here, like Greg," Potomac Falls Coach Wes Driskill said. "If we get to the 25-yard line, it's almost like an automatic three points."
Fauquier, Jr., RB, 5-10, 207
The only person who wasn't surprised by George Minor's performance in the Falcons' season opener against Hedgesville (W. Va.) in 1998 was Minor himself. Minor, who at the time was a sophomore getting his first significant action at running back, carried the ball 24 times for 193 yards and four touchdowns in the Falcons' 41-14 win.
"Being on the team as a freshman and running against the first-team defense of a team that made it to regionals helped me," said Minor, referring to Fauquier's 1997 team, which had a 7-5 record and lost in the AA Region II Division 4 final. "I had to run against a good defense every day in practice. I realized I could run against them, so that's why the first game wasn't too surprising to me."
Minor did not equal his opening game performance again in 1998; teams started to focus on stopping the 5-foot-10, 207-pound back, particularly after Fauquier fullback Eric Bailey's season-ending knee injury.
With a healthy Bailey alongside him in the backfield, Minor, who was named second-team all-Northwestern District, wants to improve on last year's totals of 950 yards and 10 touchdowns on 160 carries.
"George doesn't have great speed, but he is a hard runner," Fauquier Coach Tom Ferrell said. "He has a powerful build and strong legs. When you get a chance to hit him, it actually hurts."
Park View, Sr., RB, 5-11, 196
Nelson Stickley is worried he might be thinking too much when he plays football this fall.
"I'm thinking too much when I'm running the football; I'm not going with my instincts," Stickley said. "Last year, the whole time I went with my instincts. I had nothing to prove, nothing to lose."
That approach resulted in a record-breaking season for Stickley, who was a varsity starter for the first time. He set the school record for rushing yards in a game twice (271 yards against Herndon, and then 281 yards against Fairfax) and scored a school-record 28 touchdowns.
Stickley rushed for 1,836 yards on 243 carries and caught 10 passes for 129 yards. He specialized in big plays, scoring 10 touchdowns on plays of 50 yards or longer. He was named the Liberty District offensive player of the year.
"Anyone can have one great year," Stickley said. "If you can do it for two years, that's something special."
Stickley, who was bothered by a bruised back during the preseason, is fast and strong. Last year, he regularly broke tackles and also displayed quick moves in the open field.
"Nelson? He's just crazy," Park View senior offensive lineman Andy Skinner said. "He lays it on the line every time out. He's good to block for because he hits the hole so fast."
CAPTION: Ben Cross (22) draws much attention.
CAPTION: Senior Eric Gaskins (74) shows that he's not only big (240 pounds) but also nimble.
CAPTION: Andrew Hoffman, center, is faster, quicker after attending a speed camp this summer.
CAPTION: Greg Kuehn is 4 for 4 in career field goals.
CAPTION: George Minor looks to improve on his 950 yards rushing, 10 touchdowns last season.
CAPTION: With 10 touchdowns of 50 yards or longer, Nelson Stickley excels at making big plays.