About a week into practice in August, Hylton football coach Lou Sorrentino gathered his players in a section of the school auditorium for a meeting the likes of which the two-time state champion coach had never called.
The topic: leadership.
At a program as storied as Hylton's, it might be assumed that leaders perennially bloom every late summer like chrysanthemums, with players automatically capable of shepherding the Bulldogs toward yet another state title.
Not so, as evidenced by the 2004 season in which a lack of team leadership was in part to blame for Hylton dropping three of its last seven games -- the two regular season losses equaled the number of regular season losses from the previous six years combined -- including a humbling 41-0 encounter with Robinson in the Virginia AAA Division 6 semifinals.
As Sorrentino puts it now, vaguely and diplomatically, the 2004 season "didn't go as smoothly as we hoped."
When it came to leadership this season, he found answers by posing questions. Hence that special meeting in the auditorium, a setting chosen to grab the players' attention more than a locker room or classroom would, and a setting that forced them to sit close together in a confined area.
The best way I can show my commitment to the team is _____.
The worst thing I can do to our team is _____.
The most important ability a player can possess is _____.
Our team should be known for _____.
The most important trait of a captain is _____.
A disciplined team looks like _____.
Our coaching staff can most help me by _____.
The word that best describes my effort in the classroom is _____.
The loose discussion got the Bulldogs to talking, and from there they found common ground on what was important to them as a group. Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens feuding with quarterback Donovan McNabb and team management provided a timely, professional-level backdrop for the topics the Bulldogs were discussing.
"When you have one-on-ones they can be great discussions, but with 60-some guys, you can say something to one guy that would probably apply and be meaningful for a lot of guys," Sorrentino said of the benefits of the gathering. "Or they could say something very meaningful to me.
"I didn't want to tell them the answers. They weren't my answers to give."
Partly based on those discussions, players and coaches voted linemen Kevin Dessimoz and Tyrell Lynch and running back Courtney Anderson -- all seniors and all three-year starters -- as the team captains, although several other Bulldogs have emerged as leaders, as well.
"Last year, we had players, but we didn't have anybody who wanted to step into the leader role," said Anderson, the only Bulldog with a state championship ring, from 2002. "We really had nobody to turn to on the sideline and were all looking at each other: What do we do? What do we do? When a guy is down, the player wants to hear it from a player rather than a coach. . . . A lot of guys looked at last year as something that they didn't want to happen this year. This year it's way different."
"It felt like you didn't have anybody to trust on the field," said Lynch, who has "Richmond 79" scrawled on his shoes in reference to the site of the state championship and his jersey number. "If you can't trust players on the football field, I don't see how you can do well as a team. . . . Now before anybody even asks us, we'll extend ourselves to them."
It has been relatively smooth sailing this season for the No. 2 Bulldogs, who have outscored their first seven opponents, 298-22, headed into their home game tomorrow against No. 18 Woodbridge.
But if trouble does arise, they might be more adept at handling it this season than they were last year, when they lost to Potomac, Woodbridge and Robinson and fell out of the Top 20 for the first time in years.
From now on, Sorrentino might break out his questions every August, perhaps tweaking them based on the latest motivational books he's read. Two sources from recent years are "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" and Nick Saban's "How Good Do You Want to Be?: A Champion's Tips on How to Lead and Succeed at Work and in Life."
"This was new for me," Sorrentino said. "I didn't want to make [the questions] too frilly or things that the kids didn't think were important. The kids were really receptive, and they've practiced what they've preached."