“I just thought about how unrealistic this seemed,” he recalled, conjuring memories of the meals he would eat and the visit to Huntington Beach. “I never would have thought of being in that position.”
The trip was more than Ricks could have imagined when he enrolled at Good Counsel, but these kinds of national games have become staples for the top high school programs in the Washington area. Over the past five years, local teams have traveled to at least 10 states outside the region to play fellow football powerhouses.
Those games became predictable cancellations when the novel coronavirus pandemic prompted postponements for fall sports in the area until 2021, and gone are the memorable moments that came with them.
“I think our kids want to play football, but our kids are missing the unplanned moments with staff and teammates, the stuff that you can’t re-create,” Spalding Coach Kyle Schmitt said. “You can play football again, and a lot of our seniors will at the next level. But you can’t re-create high school football.”
The out-of-state trips are luxuries for private school programs, and lamenting the loss of them may seem trivial during a year when schools face much more significant issues. Still, they can be lumped into the list of experiences — and growth opportunities — students will miss this year.
Trips bring teams closer together. When Good Counsel is traveling, Coach Andy Stefanelli makes sure of it. He and his staff form room assignments to create unusual combinations — a lineman with a punter, a junior with a freshman, a player from means with a player from a humble background.
The picks sometimes generate groans or even protest from players. But by the end of the weekend, Stefanelli sees roommates talking together at breakfast or grabbing an extra Gatorade for each other on the way out.
“I can’t think of a time when it didn’t at least go pretty well,” Stefanelli said. “Even if the kids weren’t super tight at the end of the trip, there was a different appreciation for that guy. He had a different outlook with that guy than he did before, and that’s really the goal.”
For some players, these trips represent the first significant travel of their lives. Stefanelli and DeMatha Coach Bill McGregor recall walking through the aisles of planes before takeoff to find a kid turning pale and holding on to the seat for dear life, nervous about his first flight.
McGregor, who led DeMatha’s famed program from 1982 to 2011 before he returned last season, remembers years of regional trips through Virginia and Pennsylvania to play strong competition. But in recent years, high-profile showcase games have elevated the nation’s elite high school football teams.
“It’s more national now,” McGregor said. “A trip to Pennsylvania isn’t as exciting as getting on an airplane and flying to Florida or something like that.”
So local schools have joined the arms race. They operate more like small colleges every year, and cross-country trips for nationally televised games are another way to maximize the experience.
Last year, Good Counsel and DeMatha both played at St. John Bosco (Calif.); Gonzaga played at Don Bosco (N.J.); St. John’s traveled to St. Joseph’s Prep (Pa.) and Duncanville (Tex.); Archbishop Spalding flew to Bishop Moore (Fla.); and St. Mary’s Ryken visited East Ridge (Fla.). This season, local teams planned games at IMG Academy in Florida and St. Ignatius in Ohio.
“All the work that goes into it — walk-throughs, flying, getting on the bus, having the game — it definitely feels like the actual college experience,” Good Counsel senior wide receiver Miles Cross said.
When prospective players visit schools as eighth-graders, some ask coaches what kinds of showcase games they have scheduled. Others already know, having watched them on ESPN.
It’s unclear when these types of games will return for local schools, even if teams get back on the field this winter or spring. An out-of-state trip typically would be scheduled up to nine months in advance. It’s difficult to project how safe it will be next year to put 70 players on a flight or cram them into buses.
Stefanelli is hoping to reschedule trips to IMG Academy and St. Joseph Regional (N.J.) for next year, and McGregor is mulling an offer to play Centennial (Calif.) in San Diego in 2021.
Planning for such trips will bring headaches, which may just be deemed worth it.
Spalding center Chase Lusk remembers the anticipation of last September’s game in Orlando against Bishop Moore. “You could feel it, when you woke up on Friday, people were starting to get locked in — this was a big deal,” he said of the eventual 56-14 win for the visiting Cavaliers.
The previous night may have been just as enjoyable, when the teams gathered for a joint dinner.
There, the players held a tournament of a game with no clear name: Two players face each other, one points a finger, the other turns his head, and if the second player looks in the same direction that the first points, he loses. It was a you-had-to-be-there type of night, with players cackling in joy and coaches wondering what was so amusing — a silly memory that could last a lifetime.