As most area high school football players returned to the playing field outside the county last weekend, the community was missing something vital -- the social gathering and buzz normally generated by the games.

Players from Loudoun County's six schools in the Dulles District said they were very glad to be playing outside, no longer forced by the sniper shootings to practice in the abnormal contours of school gymnasiums. Loudoun County Public Schools officials have allowed only one day of outdoor activities since Oct. 5.

"We're all sick and tired of the gym," Broad Run senior lineman Mike Munroe said. "I especially feel it when it's such a nice day and you're sitting in class thinking about how great it would be to go outside and play. Then you realize, 'Oh, no, we've got to go inside to the gym.'

"Actually, it was one of the most fun games I've ever played in. Just being around my friends and being back out on the field and playing after being stuck inside for so long felt just great."

Loudoun Valley junior quarterback John Sheehan said his team "just wanted to play. We didn't care where it was. Heck, I would have played flag football if that was all we were going to get."

Although all three games involving Loudoun County schools were played with no problems last weekend, schedules are far from being set for the rest of the season. As of Tuesday, school officials had not announced a decision on games this weekend. Nothing is determined more than a day or two in advance as each shooting incident causes officials to reconsider the safety of everyone at an event.

"We've had an outpouring of support from various areas," said Lou Tiano, supervisor of athletics, health and physical education for Loudoun County Public Schools. "They have all been very supportive of people more than just [those] from Loudoun. They're using their people, keeping their concessions stands open for our people. They're giving our kids a chance to play."

Players' safety on the field is of primary concern for school officials when scheduling games. Parents of players were the only people officially alerted about the time and location of games last weekend, although close friends of the players turned up among the scant numbers of spectators.

"It would have been nice to have a crowd," Loudoun Valley Coach Bruce Sheppard said. "It would have been nice to have a lot of people out. But it's not worth risking the lives of the students."

Loudoun County senior wide receiver Nathan Tobler said all the people he wanted to watch him play were at the game but added that the small crowd could not match the energy felt on most Friday nights inside the county.

"It felt like a football game, but it was a lot different," Tobler said. "It didn't seem like there was as much intensity."

On hand at one particular location, Tiano said, were nine police officers representing three counties.

"Some people have worried about it," Stone Bridge junior linebacker Danny Jones said. "I felt safe. I knew a lot of cops would be there. They just want to protect us, and they did a good job."

If no arrest is made in the sniper case, officials said, undisclosed locations and game times are likely to last all season. For now, players are happy enough just being on the field, many regardless of where or how many people watch.

"We really wanted to play in front of a big crowd," Jones said. "People generate a lot of excitement for us when we get out on the field.

"The first thing I thought about when all [the postponements] started happening is that the season was going down the drain. I've kind of gotten used to practicing inside. It's fine with me as long as we get to play" the games.

As this schedule persists, school officials must consider the condition of fields when planning games. With plenty of fields across the Washington area off-limits, the number of safe, available fields is much smaller than the number of teams.

Thus, many fields will host multiple games on the same day and could quickly become damaged.

"The field was all torn up," said Tobler, whose team played the second game of the day on a particular field. "But we're thinking that this could be like how it's going to be. We hope [the sniper] gets caught, but we're prepared to keep doing this."

A sparse crowd cheers as Loudoun Valley moves the ball against Potomac Falls in a makeup game that was moved to undisclosed site Sunday because of the sniper shootings. As of Tuesday, Loudoun County school officials, who have allowed one day of outdoor activities since Oct. 5, had not announced a decision on whether to play games this weekend. Below, Loudoun County Sheriff's deputies take a lunch break outside the grandstand at the game.