The 30 or so miles between Freedom and Battlefield -- new Prince William County high schools that opened this fall in Woodbridge and Haymarket, respectively -- is a drive most of the schools' football players are not old enough to make. The student bodies are unfamiliar to one another. In fact, other than a county affiliation, similar campus layouts and freshly snipped ribbons announcing their arrivals, the schools have little in common.
For the inaugural year, however, the urge to make athletic comparisons is obvious, because never before have two Prince William schools opened at the same time.
That's what made the Battlefield-Freedom football game Thursday night a date that both teams entered with more anticipation than any other on their schedules. And that's what made Freedom (the Eagles) so pleased to come away with a 32-21 home win in the first of two meetings this fall between teams so new that neither yet has decals on its helmets.
In addition, neither school has any seniors, and both are playing junior varsity schedules, save for two varsity games Battlefield (the Bobcats) tackled to start the season. But the initial matchup had a bit of a varsity feel to it. JV games usually follow freshman games, but the two teams had the night to themselves. The teams even traded film, unusual by JV standards.
"We had to let people know that just because we're a brand new school doesn't mean anything, because we have good coaches and good players," said Freedom sophomore Justin Hickey, a tackle-breaking running back who pinballed his way for three touchdowns. "We set the bar. . . . We had to prove who we were."
But based on the schools' not-so-close proximity, and the fact that they will compete in different districts, the initial passion for the series is likely to wane in the next couple of seasons.
Freedom, about 2.5 miles from Potomac and with many students from within that school's former boundaries, will have more intense rivalries with the Panthers and Gar-Field and the other eastern Prince William schools in the Cardinal District. Freedom is closer to many Fairfax and Stafford schools than it is to Battlefield.
Battlefield is likely to forge more intense rivalries with Brentsville and Stonewall Jackson, schools that spawned much of its enrollment. The Bobcats are closer to several schools in Fairfax, Fauquier and Loudoun counties than they are to Freedom.
But for the first year, despite the distance and differences, the schools form a natural bond.
"I think probably to both sets of coaches it's a pretty important football game because you have new schools and somebody makes a statement," Battlefield Activities Director Dave Davis said as he watched the second half from the stadium track with his school's principal, Jack Parker, and guidance director, Bob Moore. "I think it's difficult to have a big rivalry right now when one's on one side of the county and the other's on the other side of the county. . . . But I think everybody's kind of interested in this game."
In recent days, Freedom Coach John Brown had talked about how in addition to facing a team in a similar standing, he was looking forward to going up against a proven coach. Battlefield is led by Mark Cox, who guided programs at Falls Church and W.T. Woodson in Fairfax County; one of his assistants is Paul Labazzetta, who also was a former head coach at Woodson. Brown is 28, with an equally young staff; the oldest assistant is in his early 30s.
"Were we looking forward to playing them because they were like us and we feel like they're a rivalry because they're a new school?" Brown asked as he tossed dirty uniforms into the washing machine. "Absolutely. On the same level, yes, but on a high level? Not yet. Both of us are aspiring to get to that high level.
"Time will tell [about the rivalry]. I know a lot of people like to look at where the rivalries are going to be, especially people in the sports business, because it's exciting. You look at geographically where we'll be close to. We're close to Potomac, we're close to Gar-Field. . . . [Battlefield will] be a rivalry for us because we came in at the same time. But maybe not as big a rivalry down the road as Potomac, Gar-Field, Hylton, all those guys."
Potomac and Gar-Field (3.9 miles from Freedom) are obvious rivals, and Hylton is, too, considering that Brown was an assistant there for nine years and on three state champion staffs, two coached by his father, Bill, who celebrated his son's first win in the Freedom football office afterward Thursday night.
Assistant coach Brad Qualls's father, Jim, is the Hylton AD, and there are many other familiar former Hylton faces at the school; so many, in fact, that the elder Qualls has joked that he will award Freedom his school's signature air horn -- blasted lustily after Bulldogs touchdowns -- when the Eagles beat Hylton for the first time.
Freedom Activities Director Greg Margheim is almost certain the Battlefield relationship will at best be a series, not a rivalry. He and Potomac Activities Director Bill Stearns plan to find a local business willing to sponsor a cup or some other prize to be awarded annually to the Freedom-Potomac winner, similar to such series as Chantilly-Centreville, Falls Church-Stuart, Stafford-North Stafford, Herndon-South Lakes, Madison-Oakton and others.
Potomac is leaving the Cedar Run District to rejoin the Cardinal, further cementing the rivalry with Freedom.
"I don't think it will be this way again [with Battlefield], to be honest with you," Margheim said. "In some sense, we'll always be connected, but the distance -- and who knows down the road if more schools join -- you're not going to be able to play everybody in our county. At least for a year or two, [Battlefield's] probably going to be our rival."
The Bobcats would not mind saying goodbye to Freedom sophomore Musa Seisay, who returned the opening kickoff 82 yards for a touchdown to spur a 20-0 start and returned an interception for a score in the second half that stretched the lead to 32-14. Hickey scored the other three Freedom touchdowns.
Sophomore Michael Nkwanga and junior Patrick Beitzell scored on touchdown runs for Battlefield, and Bobcats freshman Erik Patterson found the end zone on an interception return.
After losing 34-0 and 33-6 to the Dominion and Brentsville varsity teams, the Bobcats were keen on lining up against a similar opponent.
"It's nice to play a team on equal footing," said Cox, whose hobbled squad was missing about four starters. "I think this was good for both of us now, because we are the same. . . . It is a rivalry, but we're both in the same boat."
The teams will meet again Nov. 12 at Battlefield, a Friday night game with a true varsity atmosphere on the last night of the regular season. Other than the encounter Thursday, that finale will probably end up being the most anticipated game for players who by that point will have practically earned varsity status.
For now, both the Freedom freshman team (a 30-0 winner Wednesday night) and junior varsity can claim the upper hand on its fellow first-year program.
"We want to be the best . . . new school," said Beitzell, who opted to enroll at Battlefield even though his brother, Scott, remained at Stonewall. "I think there will still be a rivalry.
"We're not going to forget this game. Our first game against a brand new school -- we're going to want 'em next year."