In the summertime, a high school open at midnight is as rare as a student awake by noon. But shortly after midnight yesterday, Dominion High School in Loudoun County -- its fluorescent lights ablaze -- was pulsing with athletic activity.
Members of the school's football team, the Titans, ran the halls and pressed hundreds of pounds in the weight room as they braced for a demanding season.
"Suck it up. No excuses," Athletic Director Joe Fleming barked, just before midnight.
The unusual practice, organized by the school's football program, marked the official start of the season -- right to the minute. Under Virginia high school rules, practice couldn't start until yesterday. As the clock struck 12, marking the arrival of Aug. 8, teammates ran, jumped, shuffled and hustled to see who was the best.
Sometime after 1 a.m., they bedded down in sleeping bags spread on air mattresses in the school auditorium, only to awaken at 5:30 a.m. for a mile run through the woods -- a prelude to six hours of field practice. The punishing schedule, excluding the midnight session, continues through tomorrow.
"It's a pretty rough day, and then you have [to] get up in the morning and do it all over again," said quarterback Chris Whipple, 17, the Titans' co-captain.
Dominion is one of a few schools in the area to hold such a grueling in-house training camp, with a "midnight madness" kickoff practice. Although many high schools hold extra practices before games start, costs and liability issues discourage them from the more intense season starters, athletic directors say.
Not that there isn't pressure to have them. Over the past decade or two, high school athletics has become more demanding, coaches and football experts say. Better training techniques have made players faster and stronger, and schools that want to develop players good enough to make it to the collegiate level have to step up their game.
Midnight practices and sleepover camps are a response to that trend, said Joe Boardwine, an official of the National High School Coaches Association.
"You're seeing schools start to specialize, where they're focusing on one particular sport. And so the offseason now is time to get ready," Boardwine said.
At Dominion, which is entering its third year, coaches say the camp is a way to shape up players for what they hope will be a turnaround year after two losing seasons. "We're trying to make this week as intense as possible," said Head Coach Mike Dougherty.
Senior James Dorn, 17, the Titans' captain -- who plays offensive guard and defensive tackle -- is hoping for a college football career like that of his brother. Even though he worked at a grocery store, he has typically gone to the gym five times a week this summer -- sometimes twice a day. In the fall, he plans to take AP classes at Dominion and extra classes at Monroe Technology Center in Leesburg.
"I'm willing to play hard just to go further," said 6-foot-2 Dorn, who bench-presses 230 pounds.
Teammates competed yesterday for one of five captain positions. This week, the Titans will hold a mock draft, in which coaches will pick the best players for intra-team scrimmages.
But not all the players are as determined as the potential captains. Last night, Dougherty read out the names of 16 players who rarely made it to the weight room this summer.
To show his commitment to their success, Dougherty shaved his head into a small mohawk. And he won't shave it off, he said, until everyone is back in shape.