Loudoun County Coach Pat McManus barely had made his way through the gates at Broad Run High School Saturday when his eyes shot directly to the field.
And the mud.
The Spartans' sprinkler system -- which because of a rain sensor had been off all week and was still registered in the off position when the staff arrived to get ready for the game -- had inexplicably come on starting about 2 a.m. Saturday. That water, combined with the steady mist that fell throughout the week, had more than saturated the field.
"I'm thinking, 'Great, we're going to be playing in the mud against their 280-pound monsters, and here we are this team of pee-wees,' " McManus said. "But I think in the end it actually worked in our favor. I guess we had quicker feet."
One player who benefited was senior lineman Justin Shockley, who is accustomed to sludge.
"I go four-wheeling all the time around my house and ride dirt bikes," said Shockley, whose family raises horses and some small livestock on a 13-acre lot in Middleburg. "I used to race dirt bikes, too, but don't really have time for it anymore."
When he did, though, the muddier the track, the better.
"It's more fun that way," Shockley said.
That certainly proved the case for the Raiders, too, who fought through the sloppy conditions at Broad Run for their second victory of the season. Loudoun County senior quarterback Grant Jones was nearly flawless, completing 12 of 14 passes for 191 yards and three touchdowns. Two of those touchdown passes went to senior speedster Cameron Harris, on scores of 35 and 80 yards in a 29-21 win.
Equally important was a Raiders' defensive front that held Broad Run junior standout Thayer Nelson (970 yards rushing this year) to less than 100 yards for the second time this season.
"There's no doubt our team is better now than it was four weeks ago," McManus said. "And I can't really tell you why. Except to say that no matter what has happened, the guys have kept their morale at a high level, and so we've been able to practice hard and at a high level for 10 weeks. We have not felt sorry for ourselves once. Even after we got beat by Liberty by like 60 points, if you came here the next week, you would never have known. We were right back at it."
Two weeks after a 60-7 loss to the ninth-ranked Eagles, the Raiders defeated Dominion. Loudoun County continued to play better, McManus said, in losses to Potomac Falls and No. 13 Stone Bridge.
"Early in the season, people were running right over top of us," McManus said. "That's not happening anymore."
In fact, McManus said, there have been several plays in the past few games where it was his players doing the damage.
"There was this one play from the Broad Run game that we must have run back a half-dozen times, where Shockley took a guy up off his feet and just planted him," McManus said. "It was something. He's only 6 feet and 225 pounds, but he's the strongest kid we have, by far, and one of our fastest players, too. His motor never stops."
Nor has Shockley's belief in his teammates ever faltered.
"I talked to the team on Thursday and told them we needed to get that win over Broad Run to get our season turned around and get a little momentum going into our homecoming game," said Shockley, who was elected captain by his teammates. "We didn't start out very well this year, but I already feel like that win brought us more together. It gave us some real hope."