The country music was blaring from the speakers that rose above Wilson Memorial’s soccer field Thursday morning as the Hornets football team began practice for the upcoming season, which begins four weeks from Friday. While Dierks Bentley sang about going down the road free and easy, there was nothing easy about the start of the season for head coach Jeremiah Major or his players.
Major said 28 varsity players, plus a few jayvee players, were out Thursday for the first two-a-day practice of the summer. The bulk of the jayvee players will report next week. The players began at 8 a.m., took a break at 10:15 a.m. and were back on the practice field a little over an hour later for session two.
“It was great to be out there,” said Major. “The guys seemed like they were in great spirits and excited to be out there. You could see the energy in them. As a coach, that’s what you want to see. You want to see guys who are wanting to be here, who are wanting to put the work in.”
Unfortunately for Major, he didn’t see 11 players who played last season and were expected to return this year.
“We didn’t have a lot of guys return this year, ” said Major. “Our numbers are down.”
It may just be coincidence, but last summer, following Wilson’s appearance in the 2014 2A state championship game, there was plenty of excitement around the team as practice began. But a young Hornets team struggled to find consistency last season and finished 4-7, falling in the first round of the playoffs.
Major said many of the players not returning have decided to concentrate on academics, focusing on Governor’s School and advanced placement classes. Major said the former players didn’t feel like they could do both football and school work well.
“I’ve been doing this 17 years and never heard of such a thing,” said Major. “It blows my mind.”
Among those 11 players, three were starters last year, and some of the others were expected to challenge for starting spots this season. The worst part was that a few of the players, including one returning starter, didn’t let Major know they wouldn’t be playing until right before the start of practice Thursday morning. Major declined to name any of the students who didn’t come out for practice.
“It’s hard for my team,” said Major. “They were counting on each other. You’re part of a team, you’re part of a union. The kids worked all offseason and all of a sudden they change their minds. I could see (the dejection) in my players when they heard about it.”
With the lack of players, Major wants to focus on the basics, making sure the players he does have on the field are properly prepared. He wants perfect effort from his players. When working on a drill, the team will continue it until the coaching staff sees the effort they expect.
Thursday morning, while working on the fundamentals of getting in a stance and firing off the line together before sprinting 10 yards, the players spent 40 minutes on the drill.
“I don’t care if it takes two hours,” said Major. “We’re going to do that drill until we have everyone give perfect effort.”
Wilson Memorial isn’t the only football program struggling to get bodies out to practice.
“We’re down on numbers,” said Waynesboro head coach Derek McDaniel. “We’ve got some guys coming back, but we’re young. We’ll be fine in some areas and thin in others. I’m not as deep as I’d like to be. I like to be two deep and solid at every position, but it’s high school football, and that’s not going to happen, not at our level.”
McDaniel has accomplished his goal of rebuilding the Waynesboro football program, getting the Little Giants to the playoffs in back-to-back years. Last season, Waynesboro lost to Monticello in the first round and finished the season 6-5.
Waynesboro began practice Thursday with the hopes of making a postseason run three years in a row.
“I was pleased with their effort,” McDaniel said. “We actually had a bunch of kids who did some work this summer. That core group looked pretty good today.”
With more talking than actual action on the first day of practice, the process was a little slower than McDaniel would have liked, but overall he was happy with day one.
“We had 31 reps in 21 minutes and did some quick-paced stuff on offense, so, we’re preparing,” said McDaniel. “It’s up to [the players] to get it done, but were getting them ready.”
Robert E. Lee
Under first-year coach Scott Girolmo, Robert E. Lee football finished 9-4 last season, falling in the third round of the playoffs. This year Lee is dealing with some loss of talent due to graduation, and the young Leemen are still learning what it takes to be a consistent winner.
“We haven’t yet learned the price tag for continued progression,” said Girolmo, whose team began practice Thursday. “Getting better requires the athlete to put forth a maximum effort in order to stretch the skill. Everything is a skill, from effort, to enthusiasm, to thinking under pressure when it’s 95 degrees, to taking the correct steps at your position.”
Still, Girolmo is excited that practice is under way and games are just a month away.
“It’s my favorite time of the year,” he said. “I really like these kids, but I’m still waiting to see that commitment to straining for success.”
Staff writer Tom Jacobs contributed to this story.