Some of the most cherished traditions in high school football don’t occur on the field. This year, they’re not happening at all.
Thanks to a relentless and unforgiving pandemic that has altered, well, everything, teenagers can’t show up to school on Fridays in their game-day jerseys, announcing themselves – without having to utter a single word – as the kings of campus.
There are no pep bands celebrating their arrival with music so loud it makes their ears ring through second period. Gone are the spirited pep rallies that signify the end of another interminable school week by injecting a dose of adrenaline into a gymnasium full of rowdy students ready to spend another Friday night under the lights.
And there are no Monday morning high-fives for the victors as they stroll down the hallway, chest proudly out, still wearing the smile from three nights ago after defeating another outmatched opponent.
That last bit of tradition could have been the beginning of a cruel joke at the expense of Gar-Field High School, whose football team endured a five-year stretch from 2012-2016 during which it won just six times in 50 games, fewest among all Prince William County teams. Now, with the Indians in the midst of their best season in more than 35 years, it’s just plain cruel that they can’t properly bask in their new-found glory.
“They can’t tell anyone, ‘Hey, we told you!’” Gar-Field head coach Tony Keiling said. “They don’t see each other face-to-face. They want that peer acceptance.”
Certainly there are greater tragedies in life, especially considering our pandemic reality, but it’s especially disheartening for the seniors, who have worked for four years to change the culture and reputation of the Indians football program. Then again, they’re winners now, and winning cures all ills.
Rebuilding plan pays off
“Gar-Field was going through a rebuilding when we got there,” said senior quarterback Bishop Fitzgerald. “Seeing it all pay off and going undefeated, it’s a really good feeling.”
The Indians, fresh off the school’s first unbeaten regular season since 1985 and the top seed in the Class 6, Region B playoffs, will try to keep their momentum going Friday night against fourth-seeded Patriot when they host their first playoff game since 2011. Gar-Field captured the Cardinal District title for the first time since 1994.
Gar-Field was once a consistent winner, averaging more than seven wins a season from 1990 through 2001. It won Prince William’s first state football title in 1990 and made the playoffs seven times during that stretch.
Recent years haven’t been so kind to the Indians, with three winless seasons since 2013, including a 0-10 mark in Keiling’s first season (2017), and an 18-game losing streak from 2016 to 2018. Since the school first fielded a varsity football team in 1947 originally as Occoquan High School and then as Gar-Field in 1953, the program had always won at least one game each season.
Despite the early growing pains, Keiling believed he could right the ship. The Indians won three games in 2018 before turning the corner last year, when they won seven games and qualified for the playoffs. They were shut out by Colonial Forge in the first round, but the entire tenor of the program had shifted.
All signs pointed squarely to 2020 (2021 after the pandemic forced football to move to the late winter and early spring) as the year all the pieces could fall together behind a large senior class that includes Fitzgerald, their dynamic quarterback and free safety, and Mason Woods, a thunderous linebacker who will play at Towson next season. Fitzgerald, Woods and wide receiver/strong safety Marcus Young are four-year starters.
“We knew we were building to this ’21 class since my first year,” Keiling said. “We knew we’d go as far as they’d take us.”
Clear vision; harsh reality
Keiling’s vision for the Indians was clear, but he didn’t expect a fourth season to be filled with nose swabs, film sessions via Zoom and a regular season not only postponed six months but also shortened by four games – if they were lucky.
A U.S. Army veteran, Keiling said he knew the Indians could persevere, but having a defined and consistent routine was the key to making it all work. That new routine involved the challenges of virtual learning and a refined communication plan that held players and coaches accountable.
Keiling admitted he was a little surprised at how quickly his players adapted and credited his seniors for setting an example and encouraging the younger players to follow their lead.
“Our kids are really locked in and focused,” he said. “They’re doing online schooling, so we’ve been trying to get them to stay focused on being good students. They have a schedule, and we stick to it. They’re all on the same page.”
That’s certainly evident on Friday nights. Only two of the Indians’ six games have been close – a 35-28 win against Potomac and a district title-clinching 14-9 win against three-time defending champ Freedom.
Woods anchors a seasoned defense surrendering only 11.5 points a game. Fitzgerald, whose legs have proven just as effective as his arm, leads an offense averaging 35 points a game. He has accounted for 24 touchdowns and more than 1,600 yards through the air and on the ground. He completes just 48% of his passes, but when you peel back the onion, you find a quarterback who takes care of the ball despite being unafraid to take chances down the field.
Fitzgerald has completed 52 passes in six games, with 16 of them ending with a receiver crossing the goal line – a TD pass almost every third completion – against just four interceptions.
“If we keep developing and moving forward, nobody can stop us,” Woods said.
Sadly, almost nobody has been in the stands to see their performances, either. For the first five weeks of the season, only family members of the home team were allowed into stadiums. Players were given two tickets per home game for family members, with seniors getting an extra two.
On April 1, however, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam eased restrictions, increasing spectator limits for outdoor recreational sports, including high school football, from 250 to 500. In addition, Prince William County Public Schools permitted visiting fans into games, restoring a slight bit of normalcy into the tumultuous season.
“One of the most difficult things for an athletic administrator is to tell a family member they can’t come to their child’s game,” said Gar-Field Activities Director Mike Payne. “Navigating that routine, making sure streaming devices are up and running so they can watch their kids play, it’s been difficult.”
In an effort to shine a brighter spotlight on his athletic programs, Payne has increased the school’s presence on social media, including athletic department and team-specific accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The accounts provide updates on games for those unable to attend in person, including links to the sites that stream each contest. Payne also shares player highlight videos and re-tweets as many congratulatory messages as he can find.
“We want to make the kids proud even though they can’t be here Friday morning with the pep band or at pep rallies. We want to celebrate our kids through our social media platforms. We have to tell their stories.”