Fork Union’s prep football team usually doesn’t have the luxury of time when it comes to ramping up their football season. Like most boarding schools, the coaching staff gets a short window, sometimes as little as a few days, with their entire squad on campus before the first scrimmage or game.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing fallout in the high school sports world have suddenly given FUMA’s prep program ample time to prepare for possible games.
“We’ve never had this kind of time before,” said Fork Union coach Mark Shuman. “We’re doing a lot of teaching, going through the playbooks slowly, not doing any equipment for the next two weeks.”
FUMA is one of just a few teams across the state still making a try at fall football. To make that possible, Fork Union is creating its own sort of isolated bubble like the National Basketball Association, which, admittedly, is sort of how Fork Union works in a normal year. With nearly 275 students on campus already and academics underway, three Fork Union football teams — the postgraduate, prep varsity and prep junior varsity — are all starting some form of practice this week. The postgraduate team has three games locked in on the schedule while the prep team is still searching out potential opponents with an eye toward getting in a season that starts in late September or early October. The VISAA and Prep League announced they wouldn’t hold fall championships for football back in late July.
To make all that possible, Fork Union has employed a rigorous series of social distancing and health standards across campus including hands-free sanitizing stations, signage throughout campus and social distancing indicators on floors throughout classroom buildings and dorms.
“Luckily we’re not in a big city where it’s going to compromise us,” Shuman said. “But we harp on our guys about safety, so they’re wearing their masks and I think in every building we have, you know, the six-feet separation squares or circles that they have to stand on if they’re waiting in line anything like that.”
Shuman’s prep squad was scheduled to jump into workouts Thursday afternoon after the end of the academic day. That academic day is a critical part of the equation for a lot of Fork Union’s students, including middle linebacker Greg Hyson who is also the battalion commander, the highest ranking cadet in the corps. Hyson explained that working virtually last spring after FUMA closed for the semester was particularly challenging for him despite carrying a GPA well north of 4.0.
“I feel like I had to basically teach myself — I was basically doing the job of the teacher and the student at the same time,” Hyson said. “The teachers would do a lot of work, but I feel better when I’m in school and I can focus more.”
Now Hyson gets the benefits of in-person education and a chance to reunite with a group of football teammates that started to build something special last year. Hyson emerged as a stopper at middle linebacker for a squad that managed to wedge its way into the final VISAA D1 state playoff spot as the No. 4 seed, FUMA’s first playoff appearance since 2012. With a slew of returners back, the Blue Devils were looking forward to building on that success and now get a chance to work together to improve their craft over the next two months.
“It’s most definitely an opportunity to get better because we know (during the spring) that the gym was shut down, a lot of things were shut down and now we’re back on campus,” Hyson said. “We have more time to work back to where we were or even get better than we were before.”
Another of those key returners is V’Jon Hampton, a running back and defensive back with a Norfolk State offer already on the table. Hampton, who has packed on about 15 or 20 pounds of muscle according to Shuman with a rigorous quarantine workout approach, needed any time and film he can get from football in order to expand his opportunities at the next level. That made getting back to Fork Union a critical part of the equation for him.
“It’s really important because some (places) you won’t even get the chance,” Hampton said. “But Coach Shuman is getting us out there, getting us a chance to practice and get film to these coaches. I’m grateful.”
Hampton, who rushed for 1,122 yards and eight touchdowns last season while earning All-Prep and All-VISAA honors, pointed out how quickly that FUMA’s players bonded a year ago and how excited he is to get a chance to suit up with them again and impart some wisdom to the team’s newer members.
“They’re my boys, this is going to be real exciting,” Hampton said. “We want to use our leadership positions to bring other people in who are in their first years here under our wing so they know how to survive on their own.”
With a lot of familiar faces who also double as critical student leaders in the corps — quarterback Alex Williams is a sergeant first class while linemen Aaron Reese and Stockwell Sullivan both hold important leadership spots with Reese helping on admissions tours while Sullivan serves as a lieutenant on dorm — Fork Union has the talent and leadership to form a special group this fall provided they can find opponents.
“The hardest position to have at Fork Union is being a teenager that has to tell other teenagers what to do and, and for them to listen to and respect you,” Shuman said. “It says a lot when you have not only football players, but other athletes that are helping all of our teams that are in those positions and they know how to do it.”
One potential opponent is already in the bubble with the Blue Devils. Fork Union’s postgraduate team’s existence gives the prep squad a potential scrimmage opponent, a unique advantage for FUMA that puts that many skilled football players in a single location. It helps the prep program too that the squad’s new additions — and Fork Union’s new students more broadly — appear to be excited to be on campus.
“It’s really optimistic right now,” Hyson said. “I feel like everybody is optimistic, including new cadets, more than any other year. I feel like people are happier to be here. I don’t know if it’s because of the coronavirus — maybe people are tired of being home.”
That excitement, a host of new safety protocols and determined school leadership has helped create a chance for FUMA’s cadets to have as normal of a fall as possible under the current conditions.
“We just want to go about as normal of a year as normal as possible,” Shuman said. “I know it’s troubling times right now but I like the atmosphere here and getting the new guys in the mix. We’re going to get out there, run around on the football field and get excited again.”