At last, Meridian High School’s fall sports are back where they belong — in the autumn. To mitigate the spread of Covid-19 heading into the 2020-21 school year, Virginia High School League rejiggered its sports schedule. It started with the winter sports in December, the fall sports at the end of February and spring sports at the end of April, with each season being abridged.
Safe to say it made for some surprising sights — such as football practice in the snow. Maybe more surprising is the fact that Mustang coaches are welcoming this short turnaround. The lessons from last season are still fresh in their players’ minds, meaning they hope it will hasten their development on the field, course or court. But enough babbling. Let’s jump into the preview.
A 4 – 2 end to their “fall” season back in April helped then-Mason’s football team earn a share of the Northwestern District title. Unfortunately, they missed the playoffs due to Covid issues on other teams and their lack of overall points scored. Now the Meridian Mustangs look to atone for that with a playoff berth of their own. A veteran-laden roster is a sign that this just might be on the docket for them.
“We have an extremely experienced group of kids,” head coach Adam Amerine said. “We have over 20 seniors on the roster, some of whom have been playing varsity since their freshmen year. With the spring season still fresh in our memories, we are looking to get after it and right into games starting with cross town rival Falls Church [High School].”
That experience paid off against the Jaguars as Meridian blew them out 37 – 7 last Friday. More opponents from bigger schools are waiting for the Mustangs in the near future, with games against Kettle Run High School and Langley High School making up two of their next three contests. Iron will sharpen iron against these higher-classified opponents and prepare Meridian for a tough slate against its district competition.
It helps to have previous All District/All Region players such as George Papadopulous and Graham Felgar, as well as All District Josh Stillwagoner, returning to play a pivotal role in this season’s campaign. The main thing after that, according to Amerine, is to have the players avoid becoming complacent. The Mustangs will face Kettle Run High School on the road this Friday at 7 p.m.
Even in a short season, Meridian’s cross country team sure did find a way to leave its mark. The boys team won Districts for the first time since 2013, and then-senior Colson Board was the top finisher in districts — a first for the school since 2012. The girls placed second in districts, keeping an 18-year streak alive of the Mustangs placing within the top two. Board went on to finish 11th at the Class 3 state meet and earned the fastest time ever for a then-Mason runner.
Though that was last year…err…four months ago. Meridian’s new make up — a senior-heavy girls team with some solid freshman runners, and a less experienced, but no less talented crew on the boys side — will put the team in a different spot this season. Their main challenge is getting acclimated to running in races with bigger fields of opponents.
“The biggest obstacle for both of our teams is relearning how to race in big invitationals,” head coach Jeff Buck said. “Last year, due to Covid, there were no invitationals and runners were sent in smaller waves. Learning to race in large invitationals will take some time to adjust and gain the experience.”
Competing for a district title, while keeping an eye on making it to states, is still the primary goal for this year’s group. What Buck wants his runners to remember is “for our teams to not put too much pressure on themselves and enjoy competing while still competing hard out there.” The boys and girls will run in the Riverside High School Invitational on Sept. 11 to kick off their season.
New heights were reached by the Mustangs volleyball team during their Covid season. After going to the Class 3 state quarterfinals in head coach Derek Baxter’s first year in 2018, the then-Mason team would go on to make it to the state semifinals last spring.
The Mustangs loss ended their undefeated season at 15 – 1 and saw a slew of seniors graduate as well, leaving the program in a different spot than it last found itself, though not one that leaves them in dire straits.
“We still have a good crew coming in,” Baxter said. “The positives are we have some nice core setters, and some nice core positional players in some respects…So they’re going through their lumps of understanding what to do, but they’re getting better day by day.” One of those positions that’s taking its lumps is Meridian’s outside hitter spot. The seniors who graduated made up a bulk of the production there, so Baxter said he’s working on getting his current players up to a level that he needs for competition time.
Internal obstacles are what the team has to overcome, especially in terms of chemistry. The seniors who graduated had played with each other for three to four years at the varsity level. This year’s team has to build itself up to that point, which will ultimately be a “baptism by fire” process in Baxter’s words. The Mustangs lost their first game 3 – 1 to Washington-Liberty High School on Aug. 24. They lost 3 – 0 against Independence High School on Tuesday, with their next game against Potomac Falls High School on Friday at home.
The short layover between seasons is a major blessing to Meridian’s field hockey team, and head coach Anne Steenhoek hopes it will make last season’s results of a berth in the Class 3 region tournament all the more achievable.
“I’ve found that, since last season was only three and a half months ago, everything is still really fresh and they are picking up where they left off,” Steenhoek said. “Their stickskills and conditioning is far better than if it was an entire year between seasons.” A team predominantly made up of upperclassmen — with seven seniors and six juniors — have crystallized a good connection on the field, and the Mustangs are looking to demonstrate what that looks like with their freshman and sophomore teammates.
That is, as long as they can stay healthy. Injuries and sickness, especially during Covid, are something every team will have to endure during their usual, full-length season. A mix of wild weather — from extreme heat to tornado warnings — have proven a challenge to maintaining momentum, but Steenhoek said the girls’ great attitude is keeping them competitive.
The head coach wants to win the Northwestern District and make it beyond the first round of the region tournament.
To get there, Steenhoek is making the practices as challenging and game-like as possible so they learn to bring that intensity when it counts.The Mustangs are 1 – 1 so far, with a 3 – 2 win over Annandale High School and a 7 – 0 loss to James Monroe High School. Their next game is tonight at home at 7 p.m. against Pope John Paul the Great Catholic School.