Eager to break a sweat with his new teammates, Kasey Carter glanced around last year at the first football practice in Freedom High School history. The linebacker had a question: Where's the team?
Only 28 players had shown up for tryouts at what was expected to be a football-rich school. The meager turnout prompted Coach John Brown and then-assistant Brad Qualls (now the school's activities director) to rifle though the school's enrollment records and start cold-calling potential players, bodies they could insert under the 200 helmets the school had ordered.
"It was shocking," said Brown, who was accustomed to robust participation at alma mater Hylton, where he also coached on three Division 6 state champion teams. "I thought to myself, 'What have I gotten myself into?' "
A year later, Brown understands the task at hand. Better yet, he already had handed out 45 sets of equipment by the middle of last week. Freedom opens football practice Wednesday; many Prince William teams begin workouts tomorrow.
With a 7-2 junior varsity record behind them and no senior class last year, perhaps no players in the county are more enthusiastic about getting started than the varsity Eagles. But no team may be facing a stiffer challenge, either.
The Cardinal District includes seven-time defending Northwestern Region Division 6 champion Hylton, 2004 playoff qualifiers Woodbridge and Potomac, usually solid Gar-Field and a Forest Park program that has struggled but would not take lightly losing to a first-year varsity team.
Do the Eagles, with only a half-dozen or so seniors, know what they're up against? After all, other than the boys' basketball team going 15-8, the 2004-05 school year was a disappointment for many Freedom teams, some of which struggled to even field squads.
"I don't think they have a clue, to be totally honest," Brown said. "I don't think they know the level of football that's being played right now in Prince William County. I don't know if the state knows the level of football being played in this county. It's amazing how good the teams are and how much talent there is."
Brown is well versed in the subject. His father, Bill, started the Potomac and Hylton programs and coached them to great heights. The elder Brown played and assisted at Gar-Field and is now principal at Forest Park. And, of course, John Brown assisted at Hylton, launched the Freedom program and was a junior end in 1992 during Hylton's first varsity season. Five of the six Cardinal schools bear the fingerprints of at least one of the Browns.
Carter, one of the team's few seniors, has some sense of history -- his brother Keenan was a two-time All-Met defensive lineman at Potomac. The elder Carter, now playing at the University of Virginia, has counseled his brother about varsity football not being the same as JV football.
"The speed's just totally different and there's bigger, faster and better players," said Kasey Carter, expected to be a team standout along with Justin Hickey and Musa Seisay, both junior running backs-defensive backs, and sophomore quarterback Austin Sullivan. "I think everybody's ready for it.
"We're going to surprise a lot of people. . . . It doesn't matter the age or the size or anything. It's what you put in, your dedication."
A comfort level doesn't hurt either. Last year, around the day of the first practice, Brown was buying dirt for the soaked practice field and learning how to run the washer and dryer that had just been installed at the school.
Early on, with their own facilities unavailable, the Eagles had to pile their equipment onto a bus twice a day to practice across the road at Northern Virginia Community College. Prospective players wandered in and out of Brown's office, some with the proper physical paperwork, some not knowing the procedure.
Those glitches were to be expected for a first-year program. But not necessarily a second-year program.
"I was talking to the kids in the weight room and telling them they're in the position every other high school in the state of Virginia is in -- that's to win a state championship," said Brown, whose team opens Sept. 9 at new Stafford County school Mountain View.
"When we go out [Wednesday] at 7:30, we're just going to focus on football, not how to put your helmet on and put your pads in your pants. That makes a tremendous difference."