Little, if anything, lends itself to football on the Avalon School’s Gaithersburg campus. Fields and bleachers are nowhere to be found among the surrounding forest, forcing practices to be held at nearby Mill Creek Towne Local Park and “home” games — all two of them — to take place across the Virginia border at George Mason High School.
A portion of the Catholic private school is shared with the First Baptist Church of Gaithersburg, which means no space for a weight room. And with an enrollment of about 100 students, Coach Tad Shields knows that pickings are slim when it comes to building his 40-player roster.
But over the past year, Avalon has become a key destination for college football coaches. Last week, Maryland’s Randy Edsall and Pittsburgh’s Paul Chryst strolled through the narrow hallways. Meanwhile, phone calls have come from Boston College, East Carolina, Iowa and Nebraska.
■ UPDATE (11:45 a.m.): Avalon’s Veii signs with Maryland
They all are in search of two seniors: tailback Rachid Ibrahim and defensive back Jacquille Veii. They are the school’s first Football Bowl Subdivision recruits. Wednesday, they will join hundreds of other athletes in the hysteria that is National Signing Day — the first date the NCAA allows seniors to sign a binding national letter-of-intent to play college football.
Some, such as Ibrahim (Pittsburgh), Good Counsel defensive back Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech) and linebacker Dorian O’Daniel (Clemson) and Stone Bridge defensive lineman Jonathan Allen (Alabama) and quarterback Ryan Burns (Stanford), will use the moment to confirm their prior commitments. Others, such as Veii and Friendship Collegiate linebacker Yannick Ngakoue, have yet to make their decisions known, building suspense that will culminate with the selection of a school hat and a signature. Few top prospects, however, will have emerged from a school with the dearth of football roots that exist at Avalon.
As is the case with the Black Knights’ practices and games, Ibrahim and Veii’s journey began off the Avalon campus, at Richard Montgomery in Rockville. In the fall of 2009, Veii was a sophomore varsity starter at the school while Ibrahim, a freshman, played several positions on the Rockets’ junior varsity and varsity teams. But with hopes of making his mark at a powerhouse like DeMatha or Good Counsel, Ibrahim decided to transfer. By the end of the summer, those plans fell through, leaving Ibrahim to choose between Richard Montgomery and Avalon, a small six-year-old independent school.
“I had come to Avalon to meet Coach [Jerry] Sarchet, who was the coach at the time, but I wasn’t too high on going here,” Ibrahim said. “I was young and focused on how it wasn’t the big school I wanted.”
Yet after some prodding from his mother, Ibrahim enrolled at Avalon, just in time to join the football team for its preseason practices.
“When Rachid came, he broke the ice,” said Shields, who took over as head coach in 2011. “He stuck his neck way out and took a lot of heat from people within Montgomery County and on message boards, but he didn’t listen to it. To have that kind of fortitude is unusual for a kid that’s 14, 15 years old.”
Just as unusual was Ibrahim’s play on the gridiron. In the eighth game of his sophomore season, against Model School for the Deaf, he piled up eight touchdowns and 298 rushing yards. After finishing the 2010 season with 1,834 yards and 26 touchdowns, letters from colleges began to roll in, giving Ibrahim even more confidence in his transfer.
Back at Richard Montgomery, Veii was struggling through a tough junior season. One night, he vented his frustrations to his friend and former teammate on Facebook.
“I told Rachid that I didn’t feel like [Richard Montgomery] was the place I was supposed to be, and then we started talking about playing together again because we knew we could do some damage,” Veii said. “Rachid started talking up Avalon, so I went to visit there and I loved it.”
Veii transferred in the middle of the school year to Avalon and reclassified as a result. During the 2011 season, their first as Avalon teammates, the Black Knights went 10-1 with Ibrahim rushing for 1,241 yards and 17 touchdowns on just 125 carries. Meantime, Veii thrived as Avalon’s newest threat, scoring 18 times on only 56 touches at the running back, wide receiver and defensive back positions.
As lofty as these stats were, Ibrahim and Veii knew college coaches would be skeptical of the level of competition.
“Yeah, we dominated against the teams we played, but people wanted to see us against the top competition in the area and the nation,” Veii said. “One of our coaches, Coach [Brian] Karem, always says, ‘If you ball, they will call.’ So we went out to all the camps and combines we could in places like Maryland, Florida, Atlanta, and we always fared well.”
Veii was particularly impressive at Maryland’s one-day football camp last June. In the 40-yard-dash, Edsall clocked him at a blazing time of 4.27 seconds. The other coaches doubted Edsall’s time keeping and asked Veii to run it again, but after two more sprints timed at 4.3 seconds, Edsall had seen enough and offered Veii a scholarship on the spot.
Likewise, Ibrahim’s combine success helped garner offers from East Carolina, Ohio and Boston College. For a time, he hoped to get a scholarship from his dream school, Penn State, but the recent sanctions turned him off, opening the door for Pittsburgh, where he committed in November.
Around that same time, Veii, who had pledged to the Terrapins in June, reopened his recruitment after a discrepancy in his transcript led Maryland to briefly withdraw its offer. The matter was settled two weeks later after Veii earned credit for a course that should have counted toward his NCAA eligibility requirement. Since then, Maryland, along with Iowa and Nebraska, have reentered the picture as the senior’s finalists leading into Wednesday.
Both Ibrahim and Veii know that to some, their path to becoming a highly touted recruit sounds like something ripped from a fairy tale. But what’s surprising to some has long been an attainable goal in the minds of these two players.
“Coming in, we had a goal, and where people say you need somebody to believe in that goal, I believed in myself,” Ibrahim said. “All the so-called haters on Facebook and even grown men were saying I was crazy for going here, but I set that aside and the people at Avalon helped push me toward my goal.”