Gar-Field senior running back Shakeem Copeland has heard the talk about how his school’s football rivalry with Woodbridge — a tussle that dates back almost 50 years — has gradually lost passion as more schools have opened in the eastern end of Prince William County.
Copeland shook off the notion as though it were a half-hearted tackler.
“When I was at Beville [Middle School], our rival was Lake Ridge,” said Copeland, who two years ago got stuffed on fourth and two to conclude a six-overtime loss to Woodbridge and who scored the decisive touchdown in a win over the Vikings last season.
“All those kids are feeding into Woodbridge, and most at Beville are feeding into Gar-Field. [Woodbridge] is the game we always look forward to the most.”
Even so, there’s no denying that the rivalry, in which Gar-Field holds a 27-20-1 edge, is not what it was. The game between schools five miles apart used to draw 10,000 or more, including for the legendary 1974 matchup in which both squads were 9-0.
With Hylton now a long-standing contender 6.4 miles from Gar-Field and about 8.5 miles from Woodbridge, eastern Prince William has more of a tri-valry than a rivalry. And when Potomac is particularly strong, the Panthers, too, nuzzle their way into the conversation.
“I think it’s now just a point of, wow, this is a big game, and that’s a big game,” said Hylton Coach Tony Lilly, who in the late 1970s was teammates at Woodbridge with Potomac Coach Jerry Roadcap and Osbourn Park Coach Brian Beaty. “You don’t have that: ‘This is our rival. If we go 1-9 and win this game right here, that’s big, because we beat our rival team.’ I don’t know that that will ever be back in this area.”
Besides several new schools opening, there are other factors that have diminished the series between Gar-Field and Woodbridge, which began in 1965. One is that each Prince William high school now offers a specialty program that draws students from outside individual school boundaries.
“We have lost that true community aspect,” said Gar-Field Coach Tom Gryder, who estimates that half his players would identify Woodbridge as their chief rival and the other half would peg Hylton. Gryder has six Gar-Field graduates on his staff; Woodbridge Coach Kevin Smith is a Gar-Field grad.
Woodbridge, which has won seven of the past 10 games in the series, plays at Gar-Field on Sept. 21 this season, the second consecutive year in which the teams have met in the first half of the season.
That early date, too, has drained some drama for what traditionally had been a regular season finale. School administrators plan to move the game back to the end of the season next year to the delight of traditionalists in the area.
Woodbridge All-Met junior defensive end Da’Shawn Hand considers Gar-Field his team’s primary rival, but perhaps indicative of the turn the series has taken, he does not try to over-romanticize it.
“To us,” Hand said, “our rival is the team that we’re playing.”