By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
The T.C. Williams varsity football team is gearing up for its 2019 season, when, for the first time in decades, the team will play all five of its home games under Friday night lights.
No, Alexandria City Public Schools has not installed lights at T.C. Williams High School’s Parker Gray Memorial Stadium. But, to prepare for construction that is slated to begin on the field in October, the division worked out a deal with The St. James, an indoor sports complex in Springfield, so that the team has somewhere to play while its home field is out of commission.
Coming off a 4-6 losing season last year, the players and coaches said they had high hopes that this year would be different.
“I have a lot to prove this year, coming off a tough season last year,” Luke Wilson, senior captain and offensive lineman, said. “We have a lot of seniors and so some will be their last year playing football so you know, it’s good. Hopefully we’ll go out with a bang and make playoffs. That’s the plan.”
The seniors on the team this year are proteges of Coach James Longerbeam, who took on the role of head football coach four years ago when they were incoming freshmen.
“There’s probably about 25 of them, and we’ve been together for four years, so they kind of know how we do things, and it’s really been good,” Longerbeam said. “They’ve been great in the off season. We’ve got really, really good leadership out of this group, so we’re really excited about it.”
The team held its first official practice on Aug. 1, but the players have been putting in work year-round, from spending time in the weight room and conditioning, to participating in camps and seven-on-seven tournaments.
As they prepare for their season opener on Aug. 30, T.C.’s football players have been working on efficiency and attitude at practice, Wilson said.
“I think we’ve already fixed a lot of our mistakes, which is mainly our tone going into practice,” Wilson said. “Everything is more precise, and people are a lot more focused during practice. Doing the little things right can go a long way.”
Quarterback and senior captain Robert Longerbeam, who is also the coach’s son, said the team has improved the pace of practice as well.
“We’re actually going a lot faster, and everything we’re doing is a lot faster so you get more reps in,” Robert Longerbeam said.
So far, the team has been practicing on its home field at T.C. Williams High School. Coach Longerbeam said they haven’t been doing anything special to prepare to play indoors at The St. James.
“We’ll go up there and practice once or twice prior to our first game, but … it’s really pretty much the same,” Longerbeam said. “The only difference is there’s only bleachers on one side, which doesn’t matter as far as football.”
The St. James’ field has seating for more than 2,000 people, Longerbeam said. Both Longerbeam and Athletic Director James Parker said they expected tickets for all five home games to sell out. Tickets will be available for purchase in the coming weeks.
“The place holds, I think, 2,300 people. Our attendance for home games on Saturdays is way, way, way less than that,” Parker said. “Best-case scenario is we sell out the games, and people are unable to get in, but I think that’s a good problem to have. … People coming back out to games and getting excited about playing on Friday nights is going to help us whenever the construction is started and finished, whenever that happens, this will kind of be that catapult that helps us then fill our own stadium.”
ACPS made The St. James announcement on July 19. The decision was related to the controversial Parker-Gray Stadium modernization project, which Alexandria City Council approved in October 2018, despite the protests of residents whose homes are adjacent to T.C. Williams High School.
T.C. Williams is one of the only public high schools in the region that doesn’t have stadium lighting, though the other three primary high schools in Alexandria, all private, also lack football stadium lights. For the past 50 years, since T.C. was built, the football team has played its home games on Saturday during the day.
Because the modernization project includes lights, four separate groups of neighbors filed lawsuits against the city and school board. The plaintiffs of one of the lawsuits, which is scheduled to go to trial on Feb. 24, 2020, allege that city and school representatives promised their ancestors to never put lights on the field when T.C. was built in the 1960s.
The plaintiffs and defendants have come to a compromise that ACPS would do no construction in furtherance of installing permanent lights at the stadium until March 16, 2020, according to Lars Liebeler, the plaintiffs’ attorney.
In the interim, ACPS plans to commence construction on the track, field, press box and ticket booth in October 2019, according to ACPS Communications Director Helen Lloyd.
Parker said The St. James partnership was a creative solution for home games during the construction period.
“We’ll be the first team in the history of Virginia to have its home field be indoors, which is pretty cool, and it kind of sets the tone I’ve had as new athletic director here, of really putting our history and traditions at the forefront, making us a national-caliber program, and doing things differently, being the leaders,” Parker said.
Parker said that ACPS is partnering with The St. James so that the arrangement will be mutually beneficial for both parties. He said that ACPS is not paying anything to use the field and that both parties would make profits from the five home games.
When asked whether The St. James could become a permanent home field for the team, Parker said via email, “Well, I can never say never, but our future plans are to play on campus at our home stadium in the future. This is something different to bring some excitement back into our football program and to show the world what a first-class athletic program we are.”
Players said they were excited to play at the new field.
“I think it’ll be a cool experience for us to be able to play in front of the lights and at an indoor field. It’ll be cool,” Anthony Eaton, running back and senior captain, said. “Most people are excited. Some people are on and off, but for the most part here, people are excited.”
The Titans kick off the season at Herndon High School on Aug. 30. Their home opener at The St. James, located at 6805 Industrial Road, will take place on Sept. 20.