“They say: ‘Who are you? Who’s under the mask?’ ” Valluri said with a laugh. “I always have to duck down to try to hide myself. One time somebody flashed their phone’s light through the mouth. That was a close call.”
The high school mascot is often a beloved figure, a walking, no-talking embodiment of school spirit and unironic passion. Not every school has a suit or a student willing to don it on Friday nights. But for those that do, it’s a rewarding relationship for the fan base and the hidden figure.
At Tuscarora in Leesburg, the identity of the mascot is — well, was — a secret. Valluri inherited the role from her sister, who also kept the duties under wraps. When Yaajushi was in eighth grade and her sister, Kaushiki, was a junior, they went to a basketball game together. Kaushiki told her sister she wasn’t in the mood to be the mascot that night and asked whether she would like to fill in.
“I was like, ‘Huh?’ ” Valluri said. “I had no idea. But I put it on and took over.”
Truthfully, the anonymity is one of the aspects Valluri likes best about the role. On Friday nights she could step away for a while, turning into the most enthusiastic, over-the-top, human-sized dog she can be.
“If someone saw me doing [my duties] without the mask, yeah, it would be weird,” she said. “People would judge me. But when I’m in the mask, it feels like I can do whatever I want. It gives you an extra boost of confidence.”
At Hayfield in Alexandria, Jimmie Linza got that confidence boost in his senior year when he approached the athletic department and inquired about becoming the Hayfield Hawk.
“I’d seen it done before, and I just figured that seems like it would be fun,” he said. “I would also recommend it as an activity for someone who is shy. It’s kind of like having a separate personality.”
He spent his senior year pumping up the crowd at football games and pep rallies, enjoying the freedom of anonymity. When he arrived at Radford University for college, he quickly sought out mascot tryouts. With a year of experience, he won the role with ease. He has been the Radford Highlander for the past two years.
“The main thing I like about it is not only am I representing the college but I’m also bringing good luck and momentum to the team,” Linza said.
Some local schools have gotten creative (or simply alliterative) with their mascots: In Northern Virginia alone, there are the Majors, the Statesmen, the Phoenix, the Mustangs and the Lancers. A Hawk, such as at Hayfield, is one of the easier mascots to bring to life, but for schools with a more abstract mascot, other avenues of school spirit are explored.
Animals work best when it comes to live mascots. The most popular option in Northern Virginia is a bulldog, used by three schools: Hylton, Stone Bridge and Westfield.
At South County, home of the Stallions, the team is known to have an actual horse run onto the field ahead of its entrance. Stallions Coach Tynan Rolander said the horse tradition started about five years ago. Some players had a connection to a local farm, and then-coach Gerry Pannoni asked whether they could provide a horse for the pregame festivities.
Rolander, an assistant for the past nine years before taking over as head coach this offseason, can still remember the first game where the team brought one out, a packed home opener against Briar Woods.
“You would’ve thought that somebody dropped a bomb on the place,” Rolander said. “Everybody — fans, opposing team, our own players, the refs — they were all shell shocked. They didn’t know what the heck was going on. From that point on, it’s been an awesome piece of the entrance for us.”
With no high school football this fall, mascots of all kinds have been sidelined. For Valluri, Friday nights are much quieter. She often spends them playing tennis with her father or meeting friends for a distanced hangout. She hopes to get back into the Husky suit this winter if athletics return.
“I hope to do it until I graduate because it’s just so much fun,” Valluri said. “I can’t wait until football season starts.”