Gainesville High School faced a tight deadline for its first official football practice Monday morning at nearby Gainesville Middle School. The team needed to finish by 10 a.m. so the band could practice on the same turf field.
No worries. Like roadies on tour, the coaches knew the drill. Once practice was done, they loaded the equipment into the trailer attached to assistant coach Craig Smoot’s pickup to prepare for the next destination: a two-hour practice later that night at Patriot High School.
The approach was nothing new. Prince William County’s newest high school, which opens this fall, used Patriot and Unity Reed high schools and Gainesville Middle during the summer for offseason conditioning. On Sunday, the coaches expanded their itinerary to a Hampton Inn conference room in Gainesville to discuss the upcoming week’s schedule.
What occurred Monday was just another day in the life of Gainesville football.
“Welcome to the traveling circus,” said head coach Dan Bruton.
The high school does not have an occupancy permit yet, so none of its fall sports teams are allowed to practice at school. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the production and delivery of materials such as foam, metal and plastic needed to complete construction.
The team hoped to practice at the school later this week, but that may not happen until next week. The result left teams at alternative sites for the time being. Volleyball and field hockey practiced Monday at Patriot as well.
“You go where you can get access,” Bruton said. “It’s part of the new normal. You adapt and you adjust.”
So on Monday, blessed by unseasonably but welcomed cool weather for early August, just over 50 freshmen, sophomores and juniors without any varsity experience gathered in the shadow of their new high school and embraced their adoptive surroundings.
Freshman quarterback Josh Barido reinforced that point by walking the perimeter of the grounds afterward picking up trash.
“It does not matter where we are,” Barido said “We’re going to treat it like our home.”
A young team
Gainesville opened practice without some things. Mouth guards were scheduled to arrive later Monday. Bruton also wants to add improved ball bags and pinnies to signify scout team players.
But those could wait for the moment, Players wore helmets, shirts and shorts for the first three non-contact practices. Shoulder pads are allowed starting with the fourth practice and full pads with the sixth practice.
“The players are eager,” Bruton said. “The coaching staff is top-notch. No one is afraid of work.”
Monday’s first practice started on time at 7:30 a.m.
Online registration had helped streamline the process and prevent any extended administrative delays as players checked in and filled out a COVID pre-screening form.
Once it was time to begin, assistant coach Garrett Broady led the group through a series of conditioning drills before players broke off into positional stations.
Bruton separated the players by year. Freshmen wore white jerseys and sophomores and juniors black ones (there is no senior class for Gainesville’s first year).
The majority of the players were in white, a reminder of how young Gainesville is this season.
Only six juniors are on the team as of now. Overall, that fits Gainesville’s makeup – at full capacity the school is slated to hold 2,600 students. Drawing its students from Patriot, Battlefield and Unity Reed, Gainesville is projected to have 675 freshmen, 480 sophomores and 200 juniors this fall. The football team will play only freshman and junior varsity schedules in 2021.
Given its youth and inexperience, Gainesville has its work cut out. But the players and coaches still overflowed with excitement in anticipation of Monday’s practice. Barido said he woke up at 5:30 a.m. ready to go.
Barido reclassified as a freshman to get bigger in preparation for high school. He attended Woodbridge Middle as a sixth- and seventh-grader before his parents moved to the Gainesville area. He did online classes through George Washington University for his eighth- and initial ninth-grade years.
Instead of coming to high school as a true freshman at 5-foot-3 and 125 pounds, the 15-year-old quarterback is now 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds.
“I love the energy,” Barido said. “These guys don’t quit.”
A quick transition
Leading the way is Bruton, who has been on the go since Gainesville hired him in February.
With the pandemic pushing the 2020 high school football season back to the spring, Bruton had little down time between resigning as head coach of Briar Woods in Loudoun County and preparing to start the program at Gainesville.
Bruton was unsure at first if he wanted to apply for the Gainesville opening. But after talking to his family, he put his name in on the day of the application deadline. The opportunity would allow his family to move back to Prince William.
Bruton served as Forest Park’s head football coach for four seasons before taking the Briar Woods job for the start of the 2018 season. In addition, Bruton’s wife, Caly, is a Brentsville graduate and the daughter of Hylton principal David Cassedy.
Bruton also liked Prince William’s school-day schedule. High schools, for example, get out two hours earlier than those in Loudoun. That allowed more time for his kids to participate in school sports as well as travel competitions.
Finally, Bruton liked the idea of building a program from the ground up.
The North Carolina native’s background fit what Gainesville was looking for in a new head coach. Besides Forest Park, he coached three seasons at Briar Woods, where he led the Falcons to the playoffs his final two seasons.
“In this position, you need someone who has experience,” Gainesville activities director Jason Eldredge said. “I wanted someone with youthful energy. He brings both.”
After being hired from among 18 applicants, Bruton told his Briar Woods players of his decision the Monday before their first regular-season game, Feb. 26. Bruton would have preferred to tell his players at the end of the season he was leaving. But the time frame was too tight between departing one program and going to another.
After renting a house in Aldie, Bruton and his wife bought a home 1½ miles from Gainesville High School. Caly will teach English at Gainesville but continue to coach Briar Woods’ girls soccer team, which she led to the Class 5 state final in June.
With no time to spare, Bruton moved quickly to hire his staff, which includes former Potomac standout Deante Steele and Woodbridge standout Austin Brown. Bruton will run the offense, while Chris Lancaster oversees the defense.
“Nothing about Briar Woods made me want to leave,” Bruton said. “I did this for family.”
After practice finished Monday, Bruton brought the players together and reminded them, among other things, about the importance of staying hydrated.
Finally, he urged them to keep the right perspective. The focus is on the future.
That’s why he divided the players up based on grade level, not talent level, so they could receive more reps. The better prepared they are now, the better prepared they are for varsity next season.
Using a food analogy, Bruton told the players this process is not like cooking in a microwave where the tradeoff is immediate. This process is like making beef stew from scratch and letting it simmer. It takes time, but the result is worth the effort.
Monday was the first day on that journey. After Bruton finished his talk, the players gathered in a circle for a group cheer and then it was time for a break. Patriot awaited.