Jarrett Bramhall sucked wind while his football teammates at Woodgrove High raised their hands on their helmets to open their lungs. After repeatedly sprinting from midfield to the sideline and back, Bramhall, a nose guard, could feel the drill in his legs. A sweaty stench clouded the artificial turf on an otherwise cool day in Purcellville.
In the offseason, Bramhall wrestles at 220 pounds for the Wolverines. He works on his family’s pig farm and spends six hours on Saturdays chucking 60-pound bales of hay for a family friend.
Wrestling and country conditioning could not prepare the senior for two-a-days — five hours of practice split in half and designed to shape young bodies for 10 to 15 weeks of football. Football practices opened across the area in the last two weeks and breathless athletes at other schools endured similar scenes.
The NCAA has strict regulations for multiple on-field practice sessions on consecutive days, they were all but eliminated in Maryland high schools and the NFL has banned them altogether. Still some leagues persist.
Before school starts, coaches test players’ tolerance for discomfort to answer two primary questions:
Who do we have? Who will we be?
On Monday, Aug. 5, the first day of football practices in Loudoun County, Woodgrove’s defenders created a drumroll with their feet.
“Down!” Coach Mike Skinner directed. The defenders kissed the turf with a thud and rose for more up-downs. “Down!” Thud. Grunt. “Down!” Thud. Grunt. “Again!”
In his second year at Woodgrove, Skinner has banked the trust he earned from his first season. The Wolverines went 7-4 in 2012, winning more games than the fourth-year school compiled in its first two seasons.
Skinner admittedly started soft last year. He held players’ hands and walked them through his schemes. The team bought in, so the 55-year-old head coach could afford to be less forgiving.
On Day 1, he prescribed up-downs for less-than-optimal efforts.
On the second day of two-a-days, Skinner kicked off the evening session with levity.
“Who wants to punt?” asked the coach.
Sophomore guard Hunter Smith, the largest player on the team at 6 feet 6 and just under 310 pounds, volunteered, then shanked a tumbling, end-over-end punt 15 yards to the left sideline. He received a round of applause and laughter.
Skinner sent out the real punt team, which revealed one of the team’s top concerns. Senior running back Josh Sweet, the undisputed alpha male at Woodgrove, is the starting punter.
The 212-pound runner carried the ball at least 32 times in five games last season, and Skinner likes him more as a linebacker than a tailback. Sweet rushed for 1,727 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
Woodgrove’s coaching staff does not want to overtax its workhorse and said he will be restricted to 20 carries per game unless the team needs him in the fourth quarter.
It will, but he is not concerned.
“I’m 17 years old,” Sweet said. “I’ve got plenty of life in me.”
Increased depth at running back will help ease the burden on Sweet, but a better fix would be under center.
Junior Billy Sheehan dropped back at dusk with happy feet.
He scrambled to his right until he hit the sideline and hopped in place. His options were covered. He threw across his body to a receiver who broke off a route.
“Don’t force it, Billy. Get in the habit of running if it’s not there,” said receivers coach John Sheehan, Billy’s older cousin.
On the ensuing snap, Billy Sheehan followed the same progression but broke upfield when he reached the sideline, slicing for a first down.
Sheehan completed a pass and the whistle chirped. Will Koester, the incumbent senior who played backup and threw nine touchdown passes last year, took a snap. He remained in the pocket, checked down a soft toss to his running back and justified his decision to offensive coordinator Andy Skinner (Mike Skinner’s son) without being asked.
“It’s fun,” Koester said. “It keeps you on your toes I guess.”
“You’re competing every day. Billy’s great. . . . He’s got everything you need to have as a high school quarterback. Basically, I’ve just got to be better than him at everything I can do.”
“I would really love to start,” Sheehan said. “But I think it’s a good team because our strengths really complement each other.”
The longtime friends and neighbors competed politely. Koester lives in the house behind Sheehan’s.
“They’re watching each other,” junior wide receiver Dylan Mellor said. “They know that if one of them messes up, the other one’s right there.”
Both quarterbacks will see the field on Friday nights, but every rep in August was an argument for more playing time.
Sleepy-eyed defensive backs coach Rusty Markland was afire as the sun descended behind the Blue Ridge Mountains at the tail end of Tuesday’s practice.
The 62-year old squeezed his rough, tanned hands and drew hot air from his paunch as he stoked egos, barked like a dog and quoted Muhammad Ali.
The din of cheers carried over the smack of 16 shoving matches.
Per Virginia High School League mandates, Woodgrove practiced in only helmets for the first three days of practice. One-on-one battles were buffered by a blocking pad, but the basics were the same. Crouching face to face, players stared each other down and exploded, vying for leverage and ground until a whistle called them off.
“You make medicine sick!” Markland hollered at one winner.
Afterward, Skinner huddled the team.
“I didn’t think we were ready for this last year,” Skinner said.
When practice ended and a cloudy blue darkness enveloped the field, Skinner turned genial. He closed the days throughout the week with lessons in preparation.
If you’re banged up, get healthy. Apply ice. Hydrate. Eat as much as you can. Don’t lose too much weight. Don’t tweet our business. You’re only as good as your last rep. Get used to the grind. You’re going to have to talk your body into this a little bit. That’s part of it.
After the players vacated school grounds on the first two nights, Woodgrove’s coaches had a closed-door conversation.
The staff could not give all 104 players a spot on varsity or junior varsity. Skinner and his staff read names on the bubble and discussed whom to cut or demote to the freshman team: players who didn’t attend any of the 17 offseason workouts, who didn’t pay attention, who were lazy or simply weren’t cut out for football.
On Tuesday night, Skinner addressed the team huddled around him knowing some faces would not finish the week.
“If I have to let you go, I respect you for being out here,” Skinner said. “If you need something, I’ll always help you.”
The coaches retired to the office and confirmed the cuts. Skinner told his staff to be gentle, but to keep an eye out for frustrated kids punching lockers. If an angry parent showed up, let Skinner deal with them.
The next day, per VHSL policy, after two consecutive days of two-a-days, Woodgrove only held one practice. Ten players were cut, and two more quit.
Nobody made any trouble.