A five-mile radius encompasses Ashburn’s three high schools. Over the previous four seasons those three programs — Stone Bridge, Broad Run and Briar Woods — have claimed four state football championships, transforming the suburban Loudoun County community into a burgeoning football hotbed. This fall, three of the area’s top quarterbacks also happen to reside there, each with title expectations.
Briar Woods sophomore Trace McSorley is back at the helm for a team expected to contend for a second straight Virginia AA Division 4 state championship; Broad Run senior Connor Jessop, coming off an injury-marred junior season, is eager to make up for lost time; and Stone Bridge junior Ryan Burns holds four Division I scholarship offers — including one from Stanford — before he has thrown a varsity pass.
Together, the trio is expected to be the most talented crop of quarterbacks Ashburn has ever seen.
“These are three really, really talented, really capable guys,” said Larry Kennan, who has worked with Burns and McSorley and is a former NFL offensive coordinator. “If you had three guys like them in the same state you’d feel good about it, and here they are in the same town. I’m blown away by it.”
At 6 feet 5 and 220 pounds, Burns looks the part of the prototypical college-ready quarterback. He’s got the arm strength and athletic ability to make all the throws and an offensive system that should allow him to flourish for the No. 2 Bulldogs.
After transferring to Stone Bridge his freshman year, Burns injured his non-throwing shoulder on a running play while serving as the team’s backup last season, missed the rest of the year and was forced to watch from the sideline as the Bulldogs fell to Phoebus in the Virginia AAA Division 5 state final for a second consecutive year. Now he’ll be given the chance to lead Stone Bridge’s vaunted single-wing/spread offense and validate all the attention he’s already received.
“It’s been a huge tradition here,” Burns said of playing quarterback at Stone Bridge. “I’m not trying to do anything special. Not really paying any attention to any pressure, just going along with it and hopefully we’ll do good this year.”
Over the last two years, Kennan has worked closely with Burns to develop the arm mechanics and coverage-reading ability that have made him one of the most highly sought-after recruits in the area. This summer, McSorley joined those lengthy Sunday morning sessions and also worked out with Jessop at Maryland and University of Virginia camps.
One year ago, Jessop would have been the likeliest of the three to have college scouts fawning over him. Fresh off a state championship season in 2009, the confident redhead appeared poised to showcase his mobility, field vision and the arm he grooms as the Spartans’ shortstop every spring in Coach Matt Griffis’s high-octane offense. But a broken collarbone suffered in Week 2 derailed those plans. He missed eight games, and now is hoping to carry the momentum from his final three contests of last season — in which he threw for more than 800 yards and nine touchdowns in the playoffs — into an eye-opening senior campaign, one that coincides with the Spartans’ move up to AAA (the state’s largest enrollment classification). His lone scholarship offer to date is from Richmond.
“It was extremely poor timing,” Jessop said of the injury. “My highlight tape would be longer, it would have more TDs on it. . . . I think going to AAA this year there will be more people at the games and more scouts. If someone is going to scout Burns or [Stone Bridge lineman] Jonathan Allen, or see us play Woodbridge, maybe they’ll see me and take a second look.”
Not a hair over 6 feet tall and generously listed at 170 pounds, McSorley is unlike the other two signal-callers. As a wide-eyed freshman he was expected to hand the ball off to featured senior running back Michael Brownlee and slowly acclimate himself to the pressures of quarterbacking a high school varsity team. But when Brownlee fractured his fibula on his first carry of the season, the soft-spoken 15-year-old was thrust into the spotlight. McSorley improved week by week. By late November, when the Falcons met Jessop and the Spartans in the Region II title game, it was McSorley showing poise down the stretch of a 24-21 victory that catapulted Briar Woods to its first state championship two weeks later.
“As a sophomore, I had one of the best offensive lines in the state, a Division I running back and a Division I receiver,” Jessop said. “I think I was given too much credit that year. Trace had weapons, but I don’t think he had the overall talent around him that I did that year. And to see what he did with what he did have — the poise he had and the way he did what he needed to do to help his team win — was incredible.”
McSorley’s growing confidence is evident — from his eye contact in an interview to his vocal presence in the huddle. He now calls his own plays, and the Falcons won’t hesitate to let the just-turned-16-year-old air it out.
“I’m a lot more comfortable back there,” McSorley said. “Last year things moved real fast at times and it was hard to take one thing at a time. Now the game is slowing down, I can see the field better and I feel more control over what’s going on. Now when I get in the huddle, I want to make sure everyone knows this is my huddle.”
This fall, for the first time since 2004, Broad Run and Stone Bridge will square off in one of the region’s most highly-anticipated games. But first up on Friday, Jessop and the Spartans get another crack at a Briar Woods team that snapped their 33-game winning streak last fall. For Broad Run’s Jessop, both contests could serve as a springboard to a strong first season in AAA and greater attention from college recruiters. Meantime, for McSorley and Briar Woods, Friday’s season-opener provides an opportunity for the Falcons to kick-start their title defense while their quarterback continues to carve out his place among the area’s elite passers.
“Playing against Connor is kind of like a chess match,” he said. “When he makes a play, I want to make a bigger play. And I’m sure he feels the same way. The last time we played turned out to be a pretty special game and this one could be, too.”