High School Sports

Visions of greatness

High school sports captured by photographer Toni L. Sandys

In mid-March, some high school teams had played just a scrimmage or two before their seasons were abruptly canceled. Overnight, there were suddenly no state championships to defend, no streaks to maintain, no rivalries for which to rise. Within a matter of days, thousands of teenagers across the Washington area saw all of their sports halted. There would be no senior night with parents and siblings escorting them onto the field or court. No shaking hands or hugging the coach for everything they have done over the seasons.

More than half of America’s youth begin playing on a team when they are 6 years old, and by the time they get to high school, one third of all students participate in a school sport. Few become state champions or even entertain such thoughts. Yet they continue to practice and compete each day — sometimes in the least accommodating weather, sometimes overmatched in the worst way, maybe dreaming that the impossible will come true, always savoring the joy of competition.

High school sports is so much more than the games. For at least a few months out of each year, they create communities, however fleeting. Residents flock to fields and gyms, young kids in tow wearing the colors of the school they are almost a decade from attending. Parents from all walks of life bond in the concession stand. Kids who might not otherwise be friends stand side by side during the national anthem, sometimes not understanding the language in which it is sung.

Lockers are decorated, and pep rallies are held. Banners are hoisted and run through. High school teams provide an instant identity and an instant peer group. Teammates share pregame meals andpostgame gatherings, win or lose.

In the end, the wins and losses fade; the long practices, bus rides, team dinners, senior nights and award banquets endure.

Whitman High senior Matt Ficca threw out the first pitch on senior night May 9, 2012. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Payoff pitch

Matt Ficca was in his last year of public school in 2012 and set to throw out the first pitch on senior night when the game was rained out. Enrolled in Whitman’s life skills program, Ficca, who is autistic, had spent the past five years managing the junior varsity team. In a show of sportsmanship, the opposing team stayed in the dugout long enough for the weather to clear so Ficca, then 21, could get his pitch in.

From left, Eleanor Roosevelt's Dominique Lockhart, Marika Walker and Tameka Jameson were congratulated by their coach, Desmond Dunham, at the 2007 Penn Relays. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Owning the moment

Members of the Eleanor Roosevelt girls’ track team were congratulated by their coach after winning the 4x800 relay at the 2007 Penn Relays. Held annually since 1895, the Penn Relays are the oldest and largest track and field competition in the United States, featuring high school athletes and Olympians alike.

Seneca Valley seniors painted themselves in the parking lot before a game against Northwest on Sept. 12, 2008. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Creating a green space

Rivalries between schools tend to bring out the craziest displays of school spirit. The bigger the game, the more painted bodies and costumed fans in the stands. Seneca Valley and Northwest, both in Germantown, have been playing for the King’s Trophy for more than 20 years. A group of Seneca Valley seniors went all out in 2008.

Bethesda-Chevy Chase wrestler Carla Amaya, second from left, joined her teammates for a “skin check” before a match Feb. 2, 2011. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Blazing a trail

For some high school athletes, it’s hard to be a pioneer; for others, it’s not. Many don’t realize the power of change they can have just by making the choice to be themselves. Carla Amaya, third from left, a senior in 2011, was one of the first girls to wrestle for Bethesda-Chevy Chase.

Landon students ran to the student section before the IAC lacrosse championship game May 11, 2018. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

A show of support

Traditions get passed down from year to year, from class to class. Games at Landon, including this one in 2018, will start with students charging down a hill and onto the field. Student-athletes and fans alike have their identity partially defined through sports.

Quince Orchard faced Bethesda-Chevy Chase in the 2016 Maryland 4A West region baseball final. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Field of dreams

High school sports can feel so big and so small at the same time. In the hustle and bustle of the Washington area, games still retain that small-town feel and can transport us back to quieter times. There were no flashy stadiums or fancy seats at this Maryland 4A West Region baseball final in 2016.

Kevin Durant was the All-Met boys' basketball Player of the Year for Montrose Christian in 2006. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Rising star

Every school has its stars and its dreamers, but the ones who make it to the professional ranks are rare. Montrose Christian’s Kevin Durant was an obvious All-Met Player of the Year in 2006, but dominating the NBA still seemed a remote possibility.

From left, Westlake swimmers Rylie Bowlin, Rachel Zaccarelli and Allison Duncan used a pineapple to help them stay loose at the 2009 Maryland championships. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Stop making sense

Teams across the area have their unique customs and routines, allowing everyone to share a common bond. In 2009, the Westlake swimming team adopted a pineapple as its mascot. “The pineapple keeps their mind off the races so they don’t psych themselves out,” Coach Matt Helming said. “You don’t want to sit around thinking about your race too much.”

On May 3, 2011, Brentsville honored Sean Cutsforth, who was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan. (Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post)

A worthy salute

Sean Cutsforth was quiet and soft-spoken as a student at Brentsville, but he found his place on the mound. Cutsforth played varsity baseball for three years and threw a no-hitter his junior season. A 2006 graduate, he played on scholarship for one year at Virginia Wesleyan before joining the military. He was killed by small-arms fire in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan in December 2010 at the age of 22. The following spring, former teammates presented his mother, Vickie, with a framed jersey as the school dedicated Army Specialist Sean Russell Cutsforth Memorial Field. Cutsforth’s parents, wife and newborn son, as well as members of his platoon, former teammates and local school and government officials, were on hand.

Blair wrestler Rickey McCombs III put tape on a mat Jan. 26, 2010. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Sticking together

In most sports, the fields or courts are lined and the nets are hung. Not so for wrestling, where teams generally use the same mats for practice as they do for matches. Hours before a match, the wrestlers gather in the team practice room. The wrestlers need to work as a team or the mats — 500 pounds and 300 square feet each — can quickly get twisted into an unmanageable heap. “You feel like you have to win,” Rickey McCombs III, a first-year wrestler at Blair, said in 2010. “I’ve put in the time to come in and set [the mats] up. I have to win now, because they are in my house.”

Perry Street Prep rugby players performed the haka May 21, 2013. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Like nobody’s watching

The boys Tal Bayer recruited to play rugby at Perry Street Prep had never played the sport before. Many had never seen it or even heard of it. None of that mattered to Bayer, who saw it as a way that he could share his favorite sport — and maybe some mentoring — with students at the D.C. public charter school. Within a few years, Bayer had sent boys to play with the U.S. national team, to college on scholarships and to New Zealand for summer camps. To some players who had never been out of the city, a team trip to Great Falls was better than winning any game. This group, shown in 2013, performed the haka with enthusiasm.

Football players for Oak Hill Academy, a since-closed maximum security juvenile detention facility, were handcuffed and shackled before traveling to a game Nov. 14, 2006. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

A free spot on the schedule

Oak Hill Academy, the District’s now-closed maximum security juvenile detention facility, offered kids the chance to play on a football team in 2006. Part of the public school system, Oak Hill played the other junior varsity teams in the city’s public high school league. Usually, the other schools bused to Oak Hill and played their games on the fields behind the razor wire fence. When Oak Hill made it to the championship game, the players were allowed to leave campus.

All-Met Gymnast of the Year Katie Freix, left, and Golfer of the Year Bryana Nguyen participated in a photo shoot June 5, 2014. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Beams and greens

Across the United States, nearly 8 million high school students play for their schools. In the Washington area, more than 300 high schools boast thousands of athletes. Beyond the prominent sports of football and basketball, athletes such as 2014 All-Met Gymnast of the Year Katie Freix, left, and Golfer of the Year Bryana Nguyen, join rowers, wrestlers and handball players in the expanding list of sports offered.

Boys' basketball players from Fordson High in Dearborn, Mich., prayed before a game Jan. 6, 2017. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Acts of faith

Two members of the Fordson High boys’ basketball team from Dearborn, Mich., prayed before a game in 2017 as their teammates headed out to warm up. The predominantly Muslim school located just outside Detroit faced a range of reactions at road games in the area.

Quince Orchard's Aaron Derwin was checked for a concussion Oct. 20, 2017. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Head check

Almost 70,000 high school athletes suffer concussions playing football each year. Schools have enhanced their concussion protocols over the years, immediately checking students such as Quince Orchard’s Aaron Derwin, a senior cornerback in 2017, on the sideline after potentially dangerous tackles.

A St. Frances Academy football player lifted as teammates watched Nov. 5, 2018. Coach Biff Poggi turned the program into a power. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Carrying the weight

After leaving Gilman, the Baltimore private school where he coached for nearly 20 years, Biff Poggi moved to St. Frances Academy, an under-resourced, historically black Catholic school. Poggi built a juggernaut that sends players to some of the country’s top college football programs. In 2018, St. Frances players watched one of their own push his limits.

Huntingtown's Amanda Merrell, second from left, lined up for the national anthem with her teammates Jan. 7, 2018. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

No barriers

Huntingtown basketball player Amanda Merrell, a three-sport athlete shown in 2018, was 2 years old when her left leg was amputated after she was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. “Sports is literally my everything,” Merrell said.

Damascus football players stormed their field Sept. 27, 2019. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

A charged moment

Paper banners painted by cheerleaders and the American flag are almost a given at Friday night football games. They certainly are at Damascus, shown in 2019. A small town near a big city, boys in the program grow up going to games and wearing the same green and gold for their youth teams. Damascus has won four state titles over the past five seasons and has 11 state championships since 1980.

Wise cheerleaders danced during a game Sept. 17, 2011. (Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post)

The beat goes on

More than just the players on the field, football games involve cheerleaders, dancers and musicians from throughout the student body, each with their own role to play in the pageantry. At Wise in 2011, the cheerleaders supported one of Maryland’s top programs.

Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Walter Johnson played field hockey in the pouring rain Sept. 29, 2015. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Sticking with it

Only the most dedicated fans sat in the stands to watch Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Walter Johnson play a field hockey game in the pouring rain in 2015. With such short seasons and limited resources for rescheduling, schools would rather play in all types of weather than cancel. Muddy cleats and waterlogged equipment bags help create long-lasting memories.

Middletown Coach Kevin Lynott was doused after beating Patuxent in the Maryland 2A football championship game Dec. 7, 2013. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

One for the ages

Some games resonate more than others. Middletown football coach Kevin Lynott had to have been feeling that as his players splashed him with water after they won the Maryland 2A championship game against Patuxent in 2013. It was the last victory in Middletown’s 36-game winning streak.

Runners approached “the dip” during the Maryland 1A boys' cross-country championship Nov. 10, 2012. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Making a final push

Guidance and encouragement from adults other than parents and family can change a young person forever. Here, a coach encouraged one of his runners during the 2012 Maryland 1A boys’ cross-country championships.

Landon's new water polo team went through a strenuous workout Sept. 15, 2010. (Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post)

Staying above water

In its first varsity season in 2010, Landon’s water polo team was dedicated to improving. So nobody complained when Coach Walt Bartman ordered the swimmers out of the pool to “go get the jugs.” The jugs started empty, but by the end of the drill, Bartman had his players fill the jugs completely. The boys did their best to hoist the 40 pounds out of the water.

Friendship Collegiate's Larenzo Fisher and Percee Goings announced where they would be continuing their football careers on National Signing Day on Feb. 2, 2011. (Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post)

Rite of passage

In 2011, Friendship Collegiate Academy, a public charter school in the District, sent 14 football players to Division I or Division II college programs. Larenzo Fisher, right, would be the first person from his family to attend college. “It’s a big step for me,” Fisher said. “I’m pretty sure I was going to graduate [high school] because I’m not a quitter, but I didn’t think I was going to make it to college.”

Stone Bridge's Emily Person celebrated scoring against Briar Woods on April 24, 2013. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

It takes two

In a game, young athletes experience a range of emotion and learn how to manage the swings, a skill that will be beneficial over a lifetime. In 2013, Stone Bridge’s Emily Person was feeling good after scoring a goal against Briar Woods.

Read more:

Five decades of sports, as seen through a camera lens

An oral history of the U.S. women’s national team’s march to the 2019 World Cup title

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