Good Counsel senior lineman J.J. Lyons tried to remember the last time he had put on cleats. Dunbar punter Julian Grey struggled to handle snaps. A few players groused about stretching and practicing in 48-degree weather as a light drizzle glazed the grass -- but not many.
On a cold and damp day, high school athletics returned to normal across the Washington area. Thousands of players and coaches yesterday practiced outdoors for the first time in three weeks; they had practiced inside -- if at all -- since shortly after the string of sniper shootings began on Oct. 2. Hundreds of games were missed; some jurisdictions will scramble to make them up while others will move quickly to the postseason. Yesterday was the first step.
"The last time we were out here, people were complaining about how hot it was," Centreville junior wide receiver Jeff Hood said. "I guess three weeks has made a big difference."
Good Counsel football coach Bob Milloy got a look at what lay ahead yesterday as his football team began practices at Forest Park, near the Wheaton private school. The Falcons' only practices over the past three weeks have taken place on the hardwood floor of the school's gymnasium, and Milloy tried to keep the sessions brief so he would not lose the interest of his players.
The result: "I asked my quarterback, 'Is your arm in shape?' He said 'No,' " Milloy said. "He said he wasn't going outside because of the sniper. He literally hasn't thrown a pass outside in three weeks."
Lyons guessed he last laced his cleats on Oct. 5, in a game against McNamara. As his team warmed up and went into a contact drill called "stockyard," the pads began to pop and the voices of the players got louder in a mix of intensity and laughter.
"We're all fired up and ready to play some football," said senior safety-wingback Matt Sonneman. Good Counsel and the other seven football teams in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference will not play until Nov. 1, at the earliest.The cobwebs of inactivity were in evidence at Dunbar in Northwest, as coaches ushered players onto the field in an attempt to get through practice quickly, before a scheduled middle school game. Grey had difficulties catching and kicking the ball, while returner Vernon Davis had trouble fielding it. The team couldn't find the tee for kickoffs, so assistant Coach Michael Stewart held the ball on a piece of wood.
"They hadn't been out so long that they couldn't find their equipment," Dunbar Coach Craig Jefferies quipped.
Jefferies had decided to hold practice after it looked as if he would be able to resurrect a game against Glenville of Cleveland. The game was cancelled last week at the Ohio school's request, citing safety concerns about traveling to the region.
When the sniper suspects were arrested, Glenville coaches called to say they wanted to make the trip and play today. However, District school officials were unable to secure officials for the game. Football officials were likely in high demand; approximately 30 area games were added to the schedule yesterday.
While disappointed not to have an opponent this week, the Dunbar players still were excited about practicing outdoors. The offensive and defensive lines engaged in a spirited hitting drill, while teammates and coaches cheered them on. Friday practices are usually reserved for walk-throughs, but running back Ashley Maynard sprinted through some plays. Davis engaged a light tussle with a teammate after catching a pass.
"It was like, 'Let's do it,' " Dunbar defensive lineman Earl Caldwell said. "It is really good being out here. We haven't done any hitting. This is what the game is about."
As Douglass senior Demetrius Gainer sat in his computer graphics class late in the school day, he could not keep his eyes off the keyboard. " I was just watching the clock -- it was like a countdown," said Gainer, an offensive guard and defensive end. "I couldn't wait until we would get to practice outside for the first time in a long time."
The final bell at Douglass rang shortly after 2:35 p.m., and less than an hour later, Gainer and his teammates at the Upper Marlboro school were in full pads, running through drills on the field.
"I usually didn't like having to hit the [blocking] sled, but I really got to miss it," he said. "Practicing inside in the gym just isn't the same."
At Blair High in Silver Spring, the first cheer came during first period, when the public address system carried the news that practices would be held outdoors for the first time in more than two weeks. But the biggest applause was saved for the end of the day, when it was announced that sporting events would resume the following afternoon.
"Teachers, students, everybody was cheering," said Blair senior running back Jermaine Jack. "Everybody was like, 'Yes. We're back outside. Things are back to normal.' "
The sniper attacks were particularly difficult since a half-dozen occurred just miles from Blair. "It did hit close to home for a lot of people here," Jack said.
He contemplated a layoff in which he not only saw Blair's best season in years slipping away -- the Blazers are 3-2 -- but also his opportunity to land a scholarship. Jack has rushed for 638 yards and six touchdowns.
"I was told that some [scouts] were going to start coming down and see me for the big games coming up, but then the sniper attacks started happening," Jack said. "It was affecting my future, and what I was going to do? It affected my higher education."
Football players were not the only athletes to get outside yesterday. For the first time in three weeks, the Park View cross-country team was able to run on pavement and wooded paths, rather than on treadmills or not at all.
"I really haven't been running much, so I've lost a lot of time," senior Valerie Gooding said. "For two or three days, we ran on treadmills in a gym, but it's not the same. I like to run through the woods and stuff. It's cold today, but otherwise it's nice outside."
Park View senior Robbie Hoover got some benefit from the break.
"I wasn't running as much as I should've been, but it was definitely good to have some off time," said Hoover, who will compete in the Virginia AA Dulles District championship Wednesday. "I've had some problems with shin splints, but I think I'm feeling all right. I feel like the rest helped."
At Centreville High, Athletic Director Rod Spelman went out early yesterday morning to mow overgrown grass on the field hockey field. "I was glad to do it," he said.
"I was getting so sick of practicing inside," said senior sweeper Rachel North, who, like her teammates, sometimes worked out from 8 to 10 p.m. in the school's gymnasium. "We're really fired up. There's a lot of extra energy we have to get out."
Few teams had a more agonizing wait than Osbourn's football team. In their most recent outing, on Oct. 4, the Eagles snapped a 32-game losing streak with a rousing 15-14 win over Manassas rival Stonewall Jackson. Osbourn trailed by two touchdowns in the second half and punched in the go-ahead two-point conversion with 1 minute 35 seconds to play.
Being allowed to practice inside during the layoff only further teased the Eagles.
"We were sky-high, to be honest with you," first-year coach Steve Schultze said as the mist continued to fall on the field. Practicing inside "got old quick. . . . The kids live for this. This is their heyday at this time of the year. It's just an elation, just a real positive feeling getting back out and playing football like it's meant to be played. It feels like it's a new season."
"It was a lot different -- I couldn't get my stance right at first," Osbourn senior lineman Zach Zullinger said, describing the difference between feeling soft earth beneath his feet instead of an unforgiving gym floor. "It seemed like years."
Staff writers Tarik El-Bashir, Jon Gallo and Preston Williams, and special correspondents Colin Fitzgibbons, Josh Leventhal and Jake Schaller contributed to this report.