Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville was once the largest high school in Loudoun County. But with rapid population growth and the construction of other county high schools, Loudoun Valley is now the second smallest, with about 1,100 students.
In the 2012 varsity football season, with far fewer players on the sideline than most of its opponents, Valley’s players suffered the consequences, including two season-ending concussions and two season-ending leg injuries. After starting the schedule with 44 players spread between varsity and junior varsity teams, five of Valley’s eight junior varsity games were canceled because the team couldn’t put enough players on the field.
“About two years ago, we noticed across the field there would be double the number of kids,” said Christine Trump, a Valley booster and parent of four Valley students. “We started getting more injuries on our sidelines, more broken bones, more everything. When we got to the playoffs, we had 30 kids.”
High school football practices begin Monday in Loudoun, and many Valley parents are rising up to protest what they see as a dangerous situation. Now a small school in a lower division, Valley still faces a schedule filled with far larger schools. Many of Valley’s players are on the field for both offense and defense, absorbing far more hits — and therefore more head trauma — than schools with enough athletes to play nearly all of them only on offense, defense or special teams.
With a growing emphasis on concussion awareness, Valley parents think that “safety scheduling,” or playing schools of similar size, would help athletes avoid concussions in the first place, instead of leaving them to be treated after the fact. While Valley is not the smallest school in the region — nor is it a punching bag, going 4-6 in 2012, sometimes handily defeating opponents — the team’s parents and coaches are taking a unique stand against a schedule they see as a potential catastrophe waiting to happen.
Parent Sherry Frazier said she sees the benefits of children playing football — team-building, athletics, growth and achievement — and doesn’t want to pull hers from the game. She, and others, see scheduling as a way to mitigate potential harm.
After the team staggered into the playoffs last season, a postseason designed to match Valley with teams its own size, Frazier wrote to Valley’s athletic director because it was clear that the team was filled with walking wounded.
“All heart, no limbs,” Frazier wrote. “There has to be something that can be done.”
Parent and assistant coach Scott Warner agreed: “It’s not that we are concerned that our kids are playing football, it is that they are playing in an unsafe environment, and the environment is something we can control.”
Loudoun school officials thus far have not been willing to alter Valley’s schedule. Schools spokesman Wayde Byard said the Valley Vikings football squad is comparable to its opponents, adding that Valley was competitive in games against much larger Loudoun schools such as Tuscarora, which beat Valley 20-14 last season.
“We look for proximity and competitiveness” when making schedules, Byard said. “Safety is our primary concern. Head trauma is a particular concern.”
The issue took on added urgency at Valley when, at the end of last season, parents and head football coach Danny McGrath saw what they thought was a serious problem. They then looked at the schedules for the next two years, and any hope of “safety scheduling” smaller schools against each other was gone.
For years, Virginia high school sports were divided into three levels — A, AA and AAA — with AAA being the largest schools. This past year, the schools were put into six classifications.
Valley at one point had enrollments as high as nearly 2,300, split between two campuses, placing it in Virginia’s top statewide athletic level. When Woodgrove High School opened in 2010 just outside Purcellville, Valley immediately lost nearly half of its students. By March 2012, Valley reported an enrollment of 1,061, placing it in a new, midlevel sports classification.
The only time Valley will play another school on its level in the next two seasons will be when it plays John Champe High School in Aldie, which had 609 students in 2012. Valley’s second, third and fourth games are against higher-level schools with about 500 more students, according to the 2012 enrollment figures the state uses to classify schools.
“It’s not a safe situation for our players,” said Joe LaFonte Jr., a parent of a Valley player and an assistant coach. “We have schools we can play; they’re not far away. You go where it’s right to go. We’re certainly being shortchanged in the schedule.”
Valley’s concerns are echoed at Champe, for now the smallest school in Loudoun, which fielded a varsity team with no seniors last year, its first season. That team’s injuries were so numerous that the parent booster club bought a second all-terrain vehicle to haul injured players back to the locker room, the club president said. This year, Champe is playing two midlevel schools and eight schools in tiers above it.
“We’re really nervous about this year,” booster club president Chris Osborn said. “We don’t have enough kids to take on the bigger schools yet. We’re going to have kids that are going to get hurt.”
Jacob Trump, booster Christine Trump’s son, was a Valley linebacker who graduated in 2012. He played when the school was large, and after its enrollment fell. When he was a sophomore, Valley had 75 players on the sideline and no one playing “both ways” on offense and defense, he said. By the time he was a senior, the team had 45 players, with many on both offense and defense.
“Looking back, the odds were against us,” he said. “Now, you go to the games, it’s hard to watch. It’s ridiculous, the difference you see on the sidelines. They’ve got the 75 guys we used to have. We’ve got guys that are tiny. It looks like you’re going up against a different level. It’s sad.”
In February, a group of team moms met with McGrath. Christine Trump said she asked, “ ‘Why is our schedule this way? Last year was so dangerous. Why are we doing this?’ I didn’t know he was on the same page. He said, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ ”
Trump and other parents said McGrath prepared a computer presentation for the county’s athletic directors, discussing the need to schedule similar-size schools against each other. They said McGrath argued that teams with fewer players require many of those players to be on the field far more often.
“A high percentage of our players must often play up to eight different positions during a typical Friday night game,” McGrath wrote in a January letter to Les Cummings, Loudoun public schools athletic director, meaning nearly all of a game’s roughly 140 plays. When Valley was bigger, players rarely had more than 70 or 80 plays. McGrath, a former starting offensive lineman at Virginia Tech, cited research from Purdue University that said a football player should absorb no more than 700 head collisions in a season, with risks of brain trauma increasing after that.
“As a parent in the program, I appreciate everything he’s done,” LaFonte said. “This is not about his résumé or about wins and losses. He’s taken the whole safety scheduling approach. Play some teams twice. He’s done a great job. Unfortunately, our administration has blocked him at every turn.”
McGrath and Cummings did not respond to requests for comment.
In an e-mail to Valley parents in March, Kris Kelican, Valley’s athletic director, said scheduling is “a complex process with many factors as variables. For example a small school may have large numbers of athletes in their football program and a large school may have small numbers of athletes in their football program. So there is much more to consider than just school enrollment size. . . . Safety is always our number one concern and we expect all of our coaches — including Coach McGrath — to conduct preseason conditioning and in season practices prioritizing player safety.”
Kelican did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Valley’s principal, Susan Ross.
Chris Nowinski, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University’s School of Medicine, said that in a collision sport such as football, there is a clear safety concern if two opponents are unevenly matched on size, strength or speed.
“A smaller, weaker team would be expected to be at a greater risk of injury, including concussions,” Nowinski said. “For example, you wouldn’t want a high school team playing the Redskins due to the risk of injury. Dangerous mismatches can also exist between high schools, but it is a subjective decision. The coach may be the only person qualified to make that decision.”
Nowinski was one of several head trauma researchers who endorsed McGrath’s push for more equitable scheduling by school size, according to McGrath’s computer presentation to Loudoun athletic directors. The presentation, obtained by The Washington Post, also featured photos of high school football players who have died in recent years with head trauma suspected as a contributing factor, including Austin Trenum of Brentsville High School in Prince William County, who killed himself two days after suffering a concussion during a game in 2010.
The head trauma studies by various research groups and universities “suggest that Loudoun County Public Schools scheduling policy as currently constituted, subjects student-athletes of the smaller schools not only to a greater risk of injury but to a greater risk of serious head trauma including concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” McGrath wrote in a January letter to Loudoun administrators.
Valley parents said McGrath has drawn up proposed safer schedules for all Loudoun schools, which potentially would match Valley and other smaller programs with schools from Warren, Greene and Shenandoah counties that are in the same state classification level.
George Mason High School takes such an approach. Tom Horn, athletic director at the Falls Church school of about 700, said it is important to play schools of similar size, especially in a sport like football. George Mason has only two games scheduled against nearby teams this year, and otherwise travels to games in Rappahannock, Shenandoah, Clarke, Warren and Madison counties.
“Right now, George Mason teams travel because our large contact sport teams need to compete against smaller schools in order to provide the best environment for student growth and development,” Horn said.
Mike McCall, spokesman for the Virginia High School League, said the state’s classifications are designed to ensure fair play.
“You want to make sure schools of similar size play, just for a level playing field,” McCall said. “It wouldn’t make sense for a school of 3,000 to play a school of 600.”
Valley’s classification as a midlevel school in the VHSL is only really relevant for the purpose of postseason playoffs. Schools form their own districts and make their own schedules. Loudoun has two districts, and Valley is in the Dulles district with Woodgrove, Loudoun County, Heritage and Park View high schools, all higher-tier schools.
In a game against Ashburn’s Briar Woods (enrollment 1,752) last season, Valley managed one first down and 23 running plays for negative 9 yards in a 45-0 defeat. By the time Valley reached the playoffs against schools its own size, the team had 10 to 12 players in street clothes on the sideline.
“We limped into Skyline,” LaFonte said. Skyline has 882 students. Valley lost 43-6.
Champe’s athletic director, Joe Breinig Jr., said he has heard of Valley’s schedule concerns and “obviously safety is a concern for all of our student athletes.”
But, Breinig added in an e-mail, all students are at some risk every time they play.
“We want all of our student athletes to step up and face life challenges, no matter how difficult they may be,” Breinig said, adding that he is happy with the team’s upcoming schedule. “I can only speak for us at Champe, we are trying to build a safe and solid foundation for our student athletes where they can compete and develop into productive young adults.”
Champe is expected to have an enrollment of 900 students this year, far smaller than nine of its 10 opponents. The parents are worried.
“If they want us to compete, they’ve got to give us time,” said Osborn, the president of the booster club. “As a parent, I worry about our kids. I worry that they don’t look at it the right way, from the safety side. I understand where Loudoun Valley is coming from.”