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Sports Rituals - Bringing High School Teams Together

Whether wacky or common, local squads need a rallying cry.

When Phil Tiller’s Oakton High cross country teams break out the brilliant gold warm-up jackets, it’s more than just a little bit special.

The nifty, pre-race gold tops – actually, a brilliant yellow – carry the school name, Oakton, etched on the back in large burgundy letters. They are worn annually, along with black warm-up pants, only at the start of the postseason, starting at districts and on through states.

The tradition began in 1998 when Oakton running legend Jim Hill, a former state cross country champion for the Cougars in the 1970s, gifted the warm-ups, both tops and bottoms, to Tiller and the Oakton team. Sure enough, the Oakton boys captured the state title, their second straight, that first year in which they showcased the warm-ups. Since then, the warm-ups have been sported by Oakton runners every year for the autumn’s most important late season meets.

Tiller, the week prior to the start of districts, hands the jackets and pants out to his top runners. And ultimately, a few weeks later when the season is completed, the Oakton athletes reluctantly have to give the warm-ups back to the coach. They are not for the runners to keep, but a tangible symbol of inspiration for the program’s use from year to year.

“Jim Hill has been a friend to the Oakton program for years,” said Tiller. “The warm-ups are an awesome thing. They get to wear those gold jackets and that’s a huge deal to them. They wear them with great pride. I kind of think of Jim as a founding father of the team.”

The high school experience is all about learning and forging relationships – whether in the classroom during the school day, or as part of the after school math or Spanish clubs, or out on the athletic fields of play as part of a school sponsored team. One of the most vital benefits of the teenage years spent in high school is learning how to bond with fellow students. In athletics, such bonding can sometimes become engrained as part of a team’s sports ritual.

Often, on game days, high school sports teams have their own pre-contest rituals to bring them closer together and get them emotionally charged. These series of acts designed to prepare teams for competitions vary according to team make-up and personality, the sport itself and creativeness.

The role of Sports in a students’ life teaches unity and trust, and one way of exhibiting these positive traits is for teams to observe a rallying cry of sorts. It can be anything from attiring gleaming, new warm-ups for the postseason, to girls’ softball teams singing there sing-song chorus’s in unison from their dugouts during games, to teams gathering in a huddle moments prior to the start of action and screaming, `victory, victory,’ together.

High school sports is an emotionally charged endeavor, for the most part, and teams need to release that pinned up energy in a positive, constrictive way to relieve the building nervous tension before an opening kickoff, first pitch or start of a race.

<b>MADISON’S GIRLS’</b> field hockey team, prior to warm-ups and 90 minutes before home games, spend their time in the school parking lot of all places. They find some open space, get one of the team members’ cars and turn up the car stereo full blast. With the music blaring, the players dance around the car and do what’s known as a `break down cheer,’ in which they clap their shin guards. This home game ritual is known simply as the `Car Dance’ to the Warhawk players.

“It’s a pre-game tradition and they carry it on year to year,” said Madison coach Meghan Punaro. “They do the cheers and dances to get them pumped up for the game. They love doing that.”

Punaro does not mind, as long as the girls, by the start of the evening’s game, are focused to play good field hockey.

“My thing is, you can do all that as long as they come back and are mentally ready to play,” she said. “After they do [the car dance] we meet as a group, focus on goals and get ready to actually play.”

Madison, with its car dance and all, certainly had a good season, going 12-8 and qualifying for the Northern Region playoffs.

Punaro said girls’ sports teams in particular have traditions of preparing for contests in such spirited, enthusiastic ways.

“Teams have traditions to get them pumped up and ready to go,” said Punaro, a former McLean High field hockey player who went on to play the sport collegiately for four years at Mary Washington University. “The [pre-game ritual] is the same thing every time. It’s consistent. In college we always played pre-game music and warmed up in a precise order. Some of the music really got us pumped up, very high energy. But in college we didn’t have as much of the cheers.”

<b>PETE SHERRY</b>, head cross country coach at Herndon High School and a former professional runner, said the way his girls’ and boys’ teams prepare for races differs. The Hornet boys, a couple of minutes prior to the start of a race, will gather in a team huddle and get down on one knee. With arms around one another, one of the senior team captains - Jack Jasper or Alex Anthony - will give encouraging words. Cross Country, while an individual sport in some regards, is a great team sport as well where runners, often during the race itself, will encourage their teammates and often run in packs for strategy purposes and morale.

“It’s a real cool tradition,” said Sherry, of the boys’ pre-race huddle, coaches excluded. “I’ve never been involved with that. But I say, `lets keep the tradition going.’”

One year, as a team gift, the Herndon boys presented Sherry with a framed picture of them in one of those pre-race huddles. The coach still cherishes it.

The Herndon girls, on the other hand, utilize what Sherry calls a `wacky cheer’ in which team members will respond to their coach’s calls. Sherry will say, `It’s cold today,’ and the runners, in unison, will answer, `we don’t care.’ Or Sherry will cry out, `we’re tired today’ or `its muddy today,’ to which the girls will give the same `we don’t care’ answer.

“It kind of gets all the negative energy out,” said Sherry. Then with a laugh, the coach said, “Parents will just hear `we don’t care,’ and ask them why they are saying that.”

Sometimes after a Herndon practice, if Sherry senses his team is a little down for some reason, the coach will order six or seven pizzas. The team will than gather in one of the school trailers and enjoy a post practice pizza dinner.

“We’ll do that when I think they need it or that they’re tired [from the season],” he said. “It helps the spirit.”

Sometimes, sports rituals are low-keyed. At McLean High, the football team, in the hours leading up to a Friday night game, will settle for dinner and a movie. Players are not necessarily required to watch the movie.

“It’s a quiet time,” said McLean defensive coordinator Greg Sullivan. “Kids can curl up and watch the movie or go to sleep.”

But there are times the players really get into the movies. If the Highlanders are set to meet an especially physical team, they might watch NFL highlights in order to help them get into a bone crunching mindset. Or if McLean is going up against a particularly tough opponent , head coach Jim Patrick’s coaching staff might elect to show a movie along the lines of `Miracle on Ice,’ the story of the Herb Brooks-coached, 1980 U.S. underdog men’s hockey team that took the Olympic gold.

When McLean went 0-10 last year, Sullivan said the coaches used movies, like `Miracle on Ice,’ to help encourage and motivate them to keep working hard.

“Last year we couldn’t find enough movies to band together,” said Sullivan, of what was a trying season. “We wanted them to keep that belief that things would get better. They would come in each Monday at practice ready to fight and ready to go.”

And that fighting spirit has carried into this season. Things have gotten better for the Highlanders, who were 5-4 and in Div. 5 region playoff contention going into the final week of the regular season.

<b>SPEAKING OF FILMS</b>, Susan Shifflett, the Langley girls’ volleyball coach, recalled her 2007 region champion Saxons watching the movie, `300,’ on its bus ride down to states in Richmond. The action film, depicting outmanned Spartan soldiers in their battle against super power Persia, was not Shifflett’s type of movie – lots of graphic battle scenes. But the Saxons got a charge out of it.

“I don’t watch bloody movies,” said Shifflett, with a chuckle. “But as a team it brought them together. It was something they could carry with them into the match.”

When it comes to an actual match, Shifflett’s squad has a real life firecracker – senior Elysse Richardson - who helps keep the Saxons revved up before and throughout a contest. Langley fans are used to seeing Richardson, recently named this year’s Liberty District Player of the Year, running alongside the Saxons’ team bench and giving her teammates hand slaps.

“Elysse tries to get the kids fired up every game,” said Shifflett. “She runs up and down the bench slapping hands. She runs up and down and screams the whole time. It brings a sense of togetherness for the kids on the bench and the kids in the game. She’s just a bundle of energy, it’s just her personality. She keeps that up through the whole match.”

Richardson said she started her running bursts along the bench during Langley’s region title season two years ago.

“At the end of that [2007] regular season I started doing it,” said Richardson, who plays setter and libero position (defense] for the Saxons. “It fires me up. I love high energy and I feel it helps the team. They are laughing and it relaxes everyone. It is kind of goofy. Everyone seems to enjoy it so I keep doing it.”

Richardson epitomizes team spirit. Her reaction, on gaining Player of the Year honors, was that her teammates deserved the credit.

“It was an honor and a surprise I didn’t expect,” she said. “So much of it is my team. They push me at practices and are so encouraging.”

South Lakes boys’ cross country coach Kevin Donovan said team rituals can be simple. It’s all about learning the importance of team work and encouraging one another.

“Our teams will get together and watch TV or go to a restaurant together before a big race,” said Donovan, whose Seahawk boys’ finished second at the recent Liberty District championships. “[At races] team members will cheer the runners on. That does help you when you have teammates cheering for you.”

<b>ONE OF THE MORE</b> interesting pre-game sports rituals takes place in Ashburn and centers on a rock. The large mass of stone, painted maroon, is stationed several yards behind the near side football end zone at Broad Run High School. Before the Spartans, the defending state AA football champions, enter the field for home games, they meet around the rock. There, one of Broad Run’s leaders, backup linebacker Christian Ruberwa, gathers the team together for a quick team inspiration time. The rock symbolizes the team’s solid unity as a team.

“He’s a good spiritual leader and leads a moment together with the team,” said Broad Run coach Mike Burnett, whose team recently finished the regular season with a perfect 10-0 record. “They’ll take a knee and say a few [words of] thanks. He’s a great kid and that really seems to get them going. He thrives in that role.”

He’s not one of the team’s most important players on the field, but Ruberwa makes his impact by leading the Spartans’ home game ritual.

Sports are emotional by nature. Following a students’ day in the classroom, studying text books and sitting at a desk, the role of high school sports, like other extracurricular school activities, is a positive emotional and physical outlet. And in the spirit of team work and bonding, it is only natural that sports teams create or act out a team sports ritual. It adds enjoyment to their athletic experience and will be something they always remember.

There is always room for good old fashioned, high school sports enthusiasm. Langley’s Shifflett welcomes the excitement level sports rituals generate. As far as she’s concerned it’s almost impossible to get overly charged to compete in the sport you love.

“I’ve never had a team too excited to play,” said Shifflett. “Volleyball is such a game of momentum. If you can keep your team on a high it’s a great thing.”