Nineteen boys got off the school bus, walked down the hill to Butler Stadium and prepared for a renovation.
After playing 11-a-side football since at least 1959, Quantico High School now planned to compete in 8-a-side football. Low enrollment and constant turnover, staples of life at the base Marine Corps school where military families move around all the time, precipitated change.
The pandemic has only added to the challenge, forcing Quantico to cancel the 2020 season and then the 2021 season to give it time to transition to a new format, schedule and coach.
As more high schools face declining football attendance, Dan Moore sees eight-a-side football becoming more appealing.
Excited. Nervous. Curious. Confused. The boys experienced all those emotions on that windy but pleasant May afternoon as they passed Marines doing their own training on and around the track.
After chatting along the course, they scattered their backpacks among the five rows of the single tier, changed their shoes from crocs to cleats, and awaited further instructions from first-year head coach Steve. Casner.
The 47-year-old has an imposing figure. At 6-foot-5, the broad-shouldered, barrel-chested Casner still looked like the college defensive lineman/tight end he once was at Cal Poly.
“I don’t like talking over people,” Casner said in a firm voice. “If I have to, then we cause delays.”
There was no time to waste. For 10 days for two and a half hours each session, Casner and his assistant Wes Faulk would run conditioning and non-contact drills focusing on football fundamentals for any kid interested in playing for the Warriors next fall.
Time demanded patience and commitment as Casner and Faulk assessed and taught a group of children between grades seven and 11 with no Quantico football experience, little or no college experience and no familiarity. with eight-a-side football.
But hope remained. If the kids gave their all, everything else would fall into place, Casner reminded them. That’s all he asked for.
So they took to the field with the best of both worlds awaiting them at a 101-year-old stadium that once hosted college football games. It was a different landscape, as evidenced by a boy wearing a mask. But it was also the same as they raced around mini orange cones and performed timing routes and blocking techniques.
It was still football as they honored the past, while adapting to the future.
In the first week of school, second Mick Johnston got to work supporting the return of football in 2022.
He and fellow sophomore Jaren Allen and junior Xavier Mims roamed the halls, writing down any name even if the student showed only passing interest. Johnston wanted to do everything he could to make sure Quantico could field a team.
He had missed his freshman season at Kellam High School in Virginia Beach when the school did not field a junior varsity team. The quarterback then arrived at Quantico hoping to play football for a program he knew had a successful reputation, reaching the VISAA Division 3 State Finals in 2016.
When Quantico decided to delay football for a year, Johnston refused to sit back and do nothing. Since he planned to graduate from Quantico, Johnston had no desire to go anywhere else, even though all high school students living on base have the option of attending nearby Potomac, the base’s zoned public high school. .
He might still attract college interest here. More importantly, however, Johnston wanted to lead by example.
“I’m ready to take all the pressure,” Johnston said.
Johnston said Casner’s commitment inspired him to keep fighting for football as well. Casner was the only one interviewed for the head coaching job. Quantico announced his hire on May 6. Five days later, he conducted his first training.
The new position stretched him. Casner once served as the school’s athletic director and school counselor, while helping the baseball team.
But Casner rose to the challenge. Sport has always been a big part of his life and he was eager to give back. He also had experience coaching high school football in his native California, Texas and Okinawa, Japan.
Understanding the unique circumstances facing Quantico, Casner remained realistic and optimistic with a step-by-step approach that included the option of changing the logo.
When Casner took over as head football coach, he hosted a meeting for which 36 children signed up, including five rising seniors. The participation encouraged Casner. And while those numbers went down a bit, they still had enough to at least build something with eight-a-side football.
“We’re treating this like we’re starting from the grassroots,” Casner said.
Quantico football has had success in the past.
Under the longtime management of Paul Roy, who also oversaw football before retiring in May 2021, the Warriors posted three consecutive winning seasons from 2015 to 2017, including two consecutive playoff appearances and recording the first 10 -0 of the program in the regular season.
Prior to this run, Quantico qualified for the state finals in 1995 and 1996 by going 11-2. And school sports hall of famer Gene Leonard compiled a 106-76-13 record as Quantico head coach from 1959 to 1990, a mark that included a 7-1 record. in 1968 and a 7-0 record in 1970. .
But despite all its periodic triumphs, Quantico still lived in a boom or bust cycle. If they had a few good athletes, the Warriors performed well. If they lacked experience and athleticism and key players left, struggles ensued.
After a combined 24-8 record from 2015-17, the Warriors went 3-11 over their next two seasons.
Football was the only sport Quantico didn’t have last fall as the school considered its future.
To field a football team, Quantico had to create an independent schedule, which was difficult to do after sports were closed for the previous school year and with the lack of similarly sized schools to compete against in Northern Virginia.
Quantico also anticipated lower-than-normal enrollment at the school and did not have a full-time athletic director until Casner officially took the job on August 2.
Additionally, Casner said the school decided to go without football for 2021 because it was joining a new conference (the Greater Piedmont Athletic Conference), where none of the other schools had football.
Looking for a solution, Dan Moore came up with a viable alternative that won over Quantico. The president of the Virginia Independent Schools Football League asked the school last fall to join the eight-man VISFL conference.
Quantico accepted the offer and will start playing this fall with a 10-game schedule.
“I was convinced football would come back, but 11 players weren’t sustainable,” Casner said.
READY TO WORK
During a break in the first practice, a player asked Casner if he could play two positions.
“Absolutely,” Casner said. “Everyone will have to play two.”
Later, Casner asked if anyone wanted to play on the line. While eight-a-side football requires fewer players at the start, it requires at least three. Casner was initially concerned that everyone would want to run, catch, or throw the soccer ball.
But four boys raised their hands in response to Casner’s question.
“I love it,” exclaimed Casner.
During the second break, another player approached Casner unsure if he was fast enough to play wide receiver. Casner allayed his fears by telling him he would find positions later.
For now, Casner wanted everyone to get familiar with the basic concepts. He and Faulk spent most of the time demonstrating proper tackling technique, footwork and stances.
They also performed passing drills before sending the four future linemen to work on hiking the ball.
All of this excited Johnston, who was not shy about expressing his passion or his confidence.
“I love the game and the mental aspect of it,” Johnston said. “I’m not the greatest athlete, but I’m fast and agile. I think it’s a natural choice.
The key is to learn how eight-a-side football works. Typically, the offenses are wide open, which caters to Johnston’s mobility. He studied his opponents, including Greenbrier quarterback Christian Cade Cox, a Division I prospect and all-state comeback performer.
“I come for his place,” boasted Johnston.
After practice was over, Johnston, Allen and Mims stayed to answer questions about their desire to play football at Quantico.
Allen said he participated in soccer last fall, but football is his favorite sport.
“It’s not a choice,” Allen said of participating in football or soccer. “There is no decision. It’s just football. »
As they started to leave, Allen promised something else to remove any doubts about the commitment of him and his teammates. Yes, they face daunting odds, but no one was hesitant about what lay ahead.
They were comforted by the opportunity presented to them. That was enough for now. The rest will follow.
“We’ll be there,” Allen said. “And you will see us working.”