Said Aziz still remembers the eye rolls and polite smiles brought on by his bravado entering the 2013 football season.
Where the Falls Church coach saw potential, others saw pipedreams for a team that had gone 5-25 during its last three seasons. When Aziz raved about the experience of his 20 returning seniors, some wondered what made them different from the seven prior senior classes that failed to lead the Jaguars to a winning season.
“It’s not like we had had just a few down years. We’re at a school that historically hasn’t been successful in football,” Aziz said. “So while I had spent enough time with these guys to know they were special, for the casual fan, they had to see it.”
After a 4-2 start, those within the Falls Church community saw something different in this year’s team. History unfolded before their eyes as the Jaguars clinched their first playoff berth in 30 years.
The feat placed Falls Church among a select group of Northern Virginia football teams that will snap lengthy postseason droughts when the region tournament gets underway Friday.
Forest Park qualified for the playoffs for the first time in its 13-year history and will travel to Patrick Henry for a 6A South region first-round game on Friday. T.C. Williams will extinguish a 22-year skid when it visits district rival South County in the 6A North opening round. And while Washington-Lee made the playoffs in 2010, the Generals will host a 6A North game Friday against Stonewall Jackson after compiling their first winning record since 1995.
Although this week marks the crescendo of the season’s palpable buzz, the wounds of frustration and defeat that served as the catalysts for each team’s reversal of fortune remain fresh.
“Last year when we lost to Yorktown in our last game and they stormed our field, I cried after the game thinking about that,” Washington-Lee senior quarterback Sam Appel said. “I told the coaches that on Monday I’d be in the weight room. We didn’t want to get used to that feeling.”
Up until then, the culture of defeat was tough to shake. During Appel’s sophomore year, four teams scheduled the Generals as their Homecoming opponent, patronizing the notion that they would serve as a beatable prop during the celebratory weekend.
And when the second game of this season ended in a last-minute loss to South Lakes, the Generals’ plans for success were suddenly placed in jeopardy.
“Believe it or not, we’ve found that there’s no greater motivation than failure, especially when you think you should have won,” Generals wide receiver Trevor McManus said. “That birthed a hunger in us that hasn’t stopped.”
Washington-Lee shut out its Arlington rival Yorktown, 10-0, on Friday to clinch its first district title since 1975.
Senior leaders such as Appel and McManus serve as a common thread among this quartet of teams. Before last Friday, when 20 Falls Church seniors were recognized in the home finale against Stuart, Said had never had more than five seniors at his disposal since taking over the Jaguars in 2010. Likewise, North Carolina recruits Malik Carney and Jeremiah Clarke anchor a T.C. Williams defense that features nine returning senior starters and has allowed less than 20 points per game this fall.
“When you have that chemistry and leadership there with seniors and guys with experience, it creates an expectation,” Carney said earlier this season. “Guys stay committed and it helps everybody else grow when they see that commitment.”
And as the wins have piled up at an unprecedented rate, the passion of the players has spilled over into the student body.
After returning to Falls Church in October following maternity leave, Jen Peeler immediately noticed an elevated sense of spirit among the students in the business and IT classes she teaches. Weaved into chatter about music, relationships and Instagram were positive comments about the football team.
“This is my third year and before now, I remember thinking it was kind of weird that there was never that special feeling in the air about Friday during football season,” Peeler said. “But I remember my first Friday back [at school] that kids were excited about the game and the football players were walking with their heads held high. ”
Forest Park added another step to its offseason preparation when it took about 35 of its players to a summer team camp at James Madison University. There, the Bruins bonded over late-night workouts and team meals, laying the foundation for the extra effort necessary in recording their first winning season.
“We took pride in hard work and staying on top of each other to focus on what we were trying to accomplish,” Bruins senior Wesley Rush said. “So when we won our first three games, it might have been a surprise to everybody else but we knew what we could do.”
As each team rides its wave of wins into the postseason, invigorated after opening the eyes of those blinded by their past futility, the players have also shifted their sights from simply building a playoff team to constructing a culture of success.
“Once you start winning, it sets the bar higher,” Bruins junior Chance Feemster said. “We’re losing some seniors next year but with our returning juniors and what we’ve accomplished this year, we believe we can continue building a new legacy here.”
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