High school football kicks off in Virginia — on a Monday in February

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It was easier to see what was missing. The start of high school football season in the D.C. area arrived without many of the trappings often associated with the Friday night experience. There was no August heat, no marching band, no line at the concession stand. It wasn’t even a Friday.

And yet, Monday’s game between the Rams and T.C. Williams was the beginning of the most anticipated football season in recent memory. For players across Northern Virginia, the first local area to begin a condensed fall sports season, Monday has long been the dangling carrot. Through months of home workouts and Zoom fatigue, this season — however modified — was something to work toward, to hope for.

“I’ve had this date marked down on my calendar ever since they moved the season back,” Robinson quarterback Steven Hugney said. “I can’t describe a better feeling than being out here with my boys.”

The Rams won, 34-15, in front of a small but vocal home crowd. A recent order from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) expanded the allowed attendance at outdoor events to 250 people. Each team was given a designated number of tickets, and fans were asked to distance in the bleachers.

They burst into cheers on the last play of the first quarter when Rams running back Cordon Zelaya broke into the open field for an 83-yard touchdown. It was in moments such as that, the crowd reaching a crescendo as the senior got one final block, when the game felt most normal. On the sideline, Robinson players celebrated every big play like a game-winner.

“If we told [the players] they had to be hosed down after every snap, they’d do it,” Rams Coach Scott Vossler said. “They’ve wanted to do whatever they could do to get out here.”

For T.C. Williams, Monday marked two weeks since they had first gathered as a team this school year. Unlike other programs in the area, the Titans were unable to hold distanced offseason workouts. For first-year coach Rodney Hughey, that meant months of being just a face on a computer screen.

Coach and team have had two weeks to get familiar with each other, let alone practice plays. As for scouting, Hughey said the team he’s focusing on most right now is his own.

The Titans pulled within 12 points late in the third quarter. The Rams responded with a long drive capped by a short touchdown pass from Hugney to tight end Myles Ratcliffe.

After the game, the Robinson players grabbed their equipment and headed for the school building while the Titans filed onto waiting buses, still in full pads. The evening, long-awaited and unlike any other, was over.

“It’s great to win, but more than ever, that’s not really what it’s about,” Vossler said. “I’m happy for the T.C. kids that they got to play, too. It’s just a good feeling. A special night.”

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