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By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
QUICKSBURG -- The swing set once had two swings dangling from its middle, and a slide and even a little see-saw. And Brandon Jones used to pick different spots on the swing set and rip soccer ball after soccer ball at each spot.
It took Jones a while before he began hitting his spots consistently, though he admits, even as a senior at Stonewall Jackson, he still can't hit them every time.
"It got to the point where, every day after school, I came home and played soccer," Jones said. "And every day after practice, I came home and played soccer.
"That's how I started off, just me and the swing set."
Soccer, after all, was the sport Jones gave up baseball for. Baseball was sluggish and boring; soccer was fast and exciting. Baseball required someone to throw with. Soccer required a ball and a yard and a swing set.
The swing set is broken now -- mangled. The swings have come loose. The see-saw is in pieces.
Years and years of getting pounded by soccer balls has taken its toll on the apparatus.
But Jones hasn't always needed the swing set. As his talents improved, his opportunities did, too.
Jones played travel soccer with former Stonewall Jackson standouts Patrick Bain and Lupe Cardoso. Jones considered that a big deal.
It didn't take long before Jones was playing with Bain and Cardoso at Stonewall Jackson: In the spring of 2009, Jones was a sophomore, Bain was a junior and Cardoso was a senior.
There were other talents on the team: Caleb Golladay, Colton Koontz, Dylan Dawson and Hayden Miller -- all juniors.
Juan Luna, a star on the rise, was then a freshman.
The Generals won every Shenandoah District game that season, and advanced to the Group A tournament semifinals.
Jones called that postseason run the "the best experience of high school." But it wasn't just the soccer that made that run through states so enjoyable. There were the restaurants where the Generals ate. The dormitories where they slept. They went bowling, and they solidified a camaraderie.
Jones' description of his role on that team is intriguing: "Work your butt off, you're taking the hits, you're winning the headers, and when it's all said and done, nobody knows who you are."
Jones laughed when he described his sophomore year that way. He said sophomore captain Ed Juarez holds a similar role now, though Juarez was named first team all-Shenandoah District this year.
But Jones didn't mind the lack of credit: Stonewall Jackson was winning. And besides, Jones knew his time would come. Eventually.
Stonewall Jackson didn't make it back to the state tournament in 2010. The Generals won every regular-season game, and went on to win the Shenandoah District tournament for the second consecutive season. They seemed unbeatable going into the Region B tournament quarterfinals.
And then Stonewall Jackson lost to Clarke County, a team it had already beaten twice.
Then Bain graduated. Golladay graduated. So did Miller and Koontz and Dawson. Jones, Luna and Emma Vasquez were the few major contributors returning for the 2011 season.
Freshmen and sophomores comprise the bulk of this year's Generals.
And so Stonewall Jackson began this season unsure of itself. Its season opener against Clarke County was essentially a scrimmage. The Generals learned what they could do, and what they couldn't do.
"After we got that first game out of the way, we started getting a feel for each other, and finding out how we were going to play," Jones said. "And from there, we started being competitive."
Jones at least knew how he and Luna complemented each other. The two have played together for so long their chemistry is astounding. Jones can look in Luna's eyes and know he's going to pummel a shot. When Luna's body language suggests he's going to shoot, Jones knows to expect a pass.
"It's something you can't really explain, when you play with somebody like that, because no one else gets it," Jones said. "Just the little things that they do, you know what they're thinking and you know what their mindset is."
Stonewall Jackson opened Shenandoah District play with a win against Central. Then it beat Luray. And Riverheads. And suddenly, Jones and the Generals had the inside track to win the district for the third straight year.
Jones said that first win over Central gave Stonewall Jackson a confidence it lacked at the start of the season. Even when Stonewall Jackson wasn't at its best, at its strongest, the Generals maintained a certain swagger.
In an April 27 game against Central, with Luna sidelined with a collarbone injury, Jones scored two goals. His first goal came on a free kick. Jones had already taken hundreds of free kicks on his swing set. So when Jones saw Falcons keeper Jordan Umstead hugging the near post and setting up his wall, Jones hit his spot on the far post.
"He's emerged quite a bit, I think," Stonewall Jackson coach Nate Hissong said of Jones. "He stepped out of the shadow and had a huge part in us winning the district title."
Stonewall Jackson went on to win every game in Shenandoah District play, including yet another win over Central in the tournament final. Jones was named first team all-Shenandoah District.
In his three-year varsity career, Jones has never lost to Central. He has never lost a Shenandoah District game.
On Monday, Stonewall Jackson will host Manassas Park in the Region B quarterfinals. Manassas Park, though it was the No. 3 seed in the Bull Run District tournament, obliterated Clarke County 5-2 in the tournament semifinals, and shut out defending Group A champion George Mason 2-0.
Jones isn't worried. He's excited as much as anything else. Excited and confident.
"We're confident, and if we lose, that's what's expected," Jones said. "We have no pressure on us. It's just, get out, play your game, play hard.
"Nine out of 10 times they might win. Maybe we'll get that one."