But in the past year, football trial numbers have dropped dramatically for the Eagles. Northern Virginia public schools have been given an intense spring season beginning in late April, despite the fact that many students still take their lessons at home. At Freedom, participation in football was so low that the program could not form a junior team. The Eagles went 0-9.
A little over a year later, the Eagles are about to enter the post-season as one of the best teams in Prince William County. Freedom (8-3) completed a rapid transformation in a space where change often comes at the gradual pace at which athletes mature. The team’s success can be attributed to the trend that lifted several football programs across the region this spring: a new influx of players.
“A lot of guys are going back to it now,” Kimble said. “And that speeded everything up.”
12 of the 20 players did not make the Freedom List last year. Their reasons vary: some players considered the risk of disease too high while others saw their eligibility disappear because they struggle with virtual learning. For young defender Javier Lopez, the barrier was simple. Stuck in attending classes at home and without a driver’s licence, he had no way of constantly training.
“Everything has been a lot more separate in the last year,” Lopez said. “I didn’t even keep up with the team.”
When Lopez returned to Freedom after summer vacation, he and his friends from the soccer club began discussing the possibility of playing for the Eagles.
“We knew this team had the potential to be good,” Lopez said. “It was easy to say ‘let’s all do it.'”
Similar talks took place in schools across the region, once it became clear that this season would be safer, longer and less restrictive than last spring. At Tuscarora High in Loudoun County, the girls’ team added several players who had not yet played for the Huskies due to severe concerns or club commitments. Husky 11-2-1.
“You never know how that’s going to work with so many new people coming in,” said Tuscarora coach Dave Greider. “But it really took us to a new level.”
The football club is a constant presence in the lives of high school athletes and coaches. Unlike basketball or football seasons, high school football season is often played concurrently and in conflict with club events, forcing students to choose between the two or balance a hectic schedule with both. Club affiliation is also important, with some local programs banning their players from participating in the high school game altogether.
The club scene has undergone major changes in the past couple of years, freeing up some local kids to play in their high schools and taking others off the roster. And all the while, the influx of talent has led to more competition this spring.
Kofi Acquah, a sophomore at Freedom, was part of last year’s winless team and says he won’t replace anything this season. While the season was “extremely frustrating,” he now sees it as a learning experience. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Freedom’s look would be different in 2022.
Aqua said he was able to tell from the first induction session, before the auditions began, that there was a marked increase in talent.
“I knew I had to play better this year, otherwise I wouldn’t make the team,” said the midfielder.
Teams like Tuscarora and Freedom have become experiments in finding harmony between the two groups, as talented additions must chime in with returning players. This modification process isn’t always easy, and it’s become the main puzzle to solve this year for the Eagles.
“It was a bit rough early on. It wasn’t always what we wanted it to be,” Lopez admitted. “But as the season started, we started feeling more comfortable and built some chemistry.”
Now comes the final test: postseason. With the football playoff game starting next week, the Eagles and other programs like them will have a chance to prove that they’ve come together as a team, old and new, in the name of the game.