They are separated by more than 60 miles and on opposite ends of the metropolitan area, but for the first weeks of football season, Rock Ridge and St. Charles are nearly identical. The grass is still separated into freshly placed slabs of sod, so cleats sink into the ground as players trudge toward the field. The smell of wet paint is in the halls, and the white walls leading to the locker room are as clean as they will ever be. The dust from the construction covers the paved sidewalks, and yellow tape lets the fall athletes know where to walk and where to avoid.
The newest additions to the Loudoun and Charles County high school landscapes are equipped with brand new facilities, equipment and staff. Rock Ridge, situated in the fast-growing Ashburn community, will field junior varsity and freshman teams this season before transitioning to a varsity schedule in 2015. Despite having no seniors this year, St. Charles, which is in Waldorf, will play a full varsity schedule against fellow Southern Maryland Athletic Conference schools.
There are pristine practice jerseys and newly lined fields on both campuses, but there are also the inherent challenges that come with starting a program from scratch. The helmets didn’t show up on time for Rock Ridge, and a kicking block was still missing. Coaching in a construction zone means that on the days the machines and tractors stop, the field seems “deadly silent,” Rock Ridge Coach Tony Tallent said.
Tallent spent the past seven years as the head coach at Warren County. There, the opening of nearby Skyline in 2007 meant he had to rebuild a program after a loss of depth, so this type of effort isn’t entirely new.
“You get to establish the culture and set standards. You can pass along things you are taught,” said Tallent, who was also an assistant at Harrisonburg High and James Madison University. “I’ve got a lot to offer as far as practices I’ve been taught.”
He’s already incorporated the school mascot, a phoenix, into practice by emphasizing the “phoenix way” and the way the mythical bird would “R.I.S.E.” — through respect, integrity, service, excellence.
“No detail is too small to address,” Tallent said.
Sophomore Syed Qadri, who played on the Briar Woods freshman team last season, said the incoming students already have named the student section the Pyro Pit, to go along with their fiery mascot.
“We get to set the foundation, to be the first to do everything,” Qadri said.
The Phoenix practice on their stadium field with construction behind them and to their right as the start of school nears. At St. Charles, the field used for the first day of tryouts is set off from the back of the school, and a wooded area with a small creek and some turned up dirt separates it from the exit out of the gym. To get to the field, some players walked the long way around the girls’ soccer team’s practice and around hay laid on muddy construction zones. Others chose to scramble through the trees.
Avery Williams, a first-time head coach who spent the past five years at T.C. Williams, had his players line up along half the field for toe touches, then squat jumps, then a series of bear crawls forward and back.
“You’ve got to do this together!” he shouted when someone in line slowed. The rest of the player’s group then ran to encourage the straggler to make it across the yard line.
“It is any coach’s dream to lay the foundation and groundwork like this, and I am excited for the opportunity,” Williams said . There are three main focuses for his first crop of Spartans — to work hard, to be committed to the program and to have fun. It’s too early for Williams to know exactly what to expect against formidable county opponents such as Lackey or Westlake. Most of the players come from Thomas Stone, La Plata and McDonough, but few have varsity football experience.
Varsity captains Will Kwenkeu and Eric Bryson transferred from McDonough and La Plata. The juniors said the lack of familiarity was clear during summer workouts, but both players have seen significant improvement since formal practice started.
“When we first began we didn’t know anything about it and everyone was just trying to work for yourself,” Kwenkeu said. “As we kept on working we started having a ball, learning about family and the man next to you. I’m truly proud to feel like I have brothers on and off the field.”
“Based on what I’ve seen, it’s like we’ve known each other for four years,” Bryson added. “The chemistry is there. The work is there. We just have to put all of it on the field.”
The second-newest Charles County school is North Point, and the Eagles went 3-7 in their first official varsity season. They reached the playoffs in five of the next six seasons. The most recent addition to Loudoun, Champe, went 0-10 in its inaugural varsity season in 2012 and 2-8 last year. Woodgrove and Tuscarora both opened in 2010 and went 2-8 and 5-5 in their first years, respectively, and Tuscarora finished 9-3 with a playoff berth in 2011.
“One of the things as coaches we’re preaching [is] we’re going to develop a program that has a tradition that will never graduate,” Williams said. “We will develop good people first and hopefully be able to provide kids the opportunity to play on the next level.”
Williams will get an opportunity to scope out the next generation of Spartans as a physical education teacher at a middle school that feeds into St. Charles.
At this point for St. Charles, sorting into teams and building a varsity squad tough enough to compete in the SMAC are more relevant than finding a rival. Over at Rock Ridge, the biggest game of the year is already set: Briar Woods, whose varsity team has played in four consecutive state championship games. Most of the players came from Falcons territory, but sophomore Eric Vivian said everyone “knows that they’re at Rock Ridge. They’re here to be a Phoenix, not a Falcon.”