Despite fears, 2 Va. schools play game on borrowed field

Worried about sniper, residents adjust routines to try to live `normal' life

October 20, 2002|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. - The scoreboard on the football field recorded the points under the usual headings for VISITORS and HOME. But on this field yesterday, no one was really at home, and everyone visiting - on a one-day pass, in a way, from the fears generated by a still at-large sniper who has struck twice in their community.

Chased from their own playing fields, two Fredericksburg, Va., football teams played on one that they borrowed from a high school here, 45 miles and seemingly a world away.

However, last night's shooting in Ashland, Va., suggests it might not have been far enough.

While the game was a crucial one - the evenly matched Chancellor Chargers and the Massaponax Panthers had identical records going into the game and one is expected to win their division - for many, just playing at all was a victory.

"It felt pretty good," said Kevin Williamson, 16, a player for Chancellor High. "With what's going on right now, it's real nice to be able to focus on something else."

The two schools were among a number in Northern Virginia that have been postponing or canceling games and extracurricular activities as fear continues to grip their communities in the sniper's wake. But as the ordeal continues, schools and other groups are trying to find a way to live a normal life during these distinctly abnormal times. Playing football, even on an alien field in front of a smaller than usual crowd, was one step toward that goal.

"So this is our home away from home," said Lynn Cobb, a cheerleading coach for Massaponax, which was supposed to host yesterday's game.

The 45-minute drive to this Richmond suburb took them away from the sometimes overwhelming fear that has colored their day-in-day-out lives.

"My 6-year-old is petrified," said Lisa Testa, whose son plays for Massaponax. "He's afraid to go to the gas station with me; he's afraid when I go to the grocery store."

"When he heard there was a shooting in Massaponax," she said, referring to the Fredericksburg neighborhood that gives its name to the local high school, "he wanted to come home to make sure it wasn't his brother."

Indeed, high schools are so interwoven with their neighborhoods that anything that happens to one happens to the other. Fredericksburg is not only the site of two sniper shootings, but it is not that far from the Pentagon either, which means the past two years have seemed like one crisis after another.

"Eleventh grade, it was Sept. 11, and now 12th grade, it's the sniper," said Kyla Bennett, 17, a Chancellor student. "It's kind of like, man. ... "

"It's totally drowning our senior year," agreed her classmate, Phillip Clark, also 17, a football player whose leg injury kept him on the sidelines yesterday.

SAT tests have been postponed, homecoming dances canceled, although they might eventually be held, and college representatives stayed away.

While others might remember their senior years for the big games and the pranks and the proms, this class seems destined to remember some very scary days.

With Internet access and televisions in the school, students at both schools quickly learned of the Oct. 11 shooting at a gas station at 5326 Jefferson Davis Highway in Fredericksburg. Massaponax High's address: 8201 Jefferson Davis Highway.

"It was so close to home, we didn't know who was shot," said Tara Brown, 17, a Massaponax cheerleader.

Her fellow cheerleader Nicki Anderson, 16, was at a vocational-technical program that she attends part-time. Anderson initially feared it was a Massaponax student or teacher who was shot.

"At vo-tech, someone said someone at Massaponax was shot by the sniper," she said, "and I thought they meant my high school."

At their rival school, a similar fear was sweeping through the students and faculty.

"The kids got the news on the Internet, and then there was a white van spotted near the school. We went around and shut all the windows," said Scott Wilson, a science teacher and coach at Chancellor. "At this point, we didn't even know if it's the mother or father or brother of someone here who had been shot. It's been tough," he said.

The victim that morning was Kenneth H. Bridges, a Philadelphia businessman who had stopped to fill his tank on his way home when he was fatally shot by the sniper.

Fredericksburg was also the site of an earlier shooting, on Oct. 4, of a woman outside a Michaels craft store. The woman, who was injured but recovering, has not been publicly identified.

While area residents are trying to return to some semblance of a normal life, the shadow cast by the crimes is often unavoidable.

"We're trying to stay normal - everybody's got to get gas - but you're always looking over your shoulder," said William Brooks, 28, a Chancellor alumnus who attended yesterday's game to watch his cousin Darryl Lyles play (and make a nice interception in the second half).

Brooks truly is looking over his shoulder a lot these days - he works for a moving company that has a white box truck and a white van in its fleet, so he has become accustomed to wary looks from other drivers.

Like others, he was glad to be watching a football game on a crisply pretty autumn day - particularly since his amateur flag football league canceled its games today. But for at least one team on yesterday's field, the distraction of the outside world proved a bit much.

"We haven't had a practice outside in at least a week. We were told three different times, we're going to play, we're not going to play," said Eric Ludden, the Massaponax football coach, after watching his team lose, excruciatingly, 34-7. "It's disappointing, but we'll get back out there Monday."

"Out there," actually, remains off-limits. Students will continue to practice indoors, in the safety of the school gym, as long as the sniper remains out there.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.