By Tommy Keeler Jr.
QUICKSBURG -- Derrick Smith went into Stonewall Jackson's weight room just two weeks before the start of the season and was surprised by what he found -- a virtually empty room.
An immediate thought crept into the Stonewall Jackson rising senior's mind.
"It was only two or three people [in the weight room]," Smith said. "It hadn't hit me until then. I thought about it and I was like, 'Wait a second, we might not even have enough to field a team.' And so that was when I started to get real nervous."
Unfortunately, Smith's fears came to fruition a few weeks later when so few showed up for the first day of practice that the school considered canceling the season.
Stonewall Jackson took a night to consider the options. The next day the decision was made to continue the season. That starts tonight, when Stonewall visits county rival Strasburg in a 7:30 p.m. matchup.
The Generals will have 24 varsity players this season, but coach Dick Krol said he is hopeful that they will be OK and be able to play every game this season.
Krol said he knew the low numbers were coming, and it was on his mind all summer.
"I spent my whole summer vacation sitting there fishing, thinking about the lack of numbers," Krol said. "It's been coming. We've seen it coming. We've seen the drop in enrollment in the school. The drop in the number of kids playing football. The drop in the numbers of the kids in the Little League program. ...When it comes, you're not ready for it. You know it's coming, but you're still not ready for it."
Krol said he's not sure why the numbers have dropped over the years. It certainly hasn't helped that Stonewall Jackson's enrollment numbers have dropped in recent years.
With the new enrollment numbers, the current reclassification alignment plan has Stonewall Jackson dropping from a Group 2A school to a 1A school. The Virginia High School League is expected to finalize the plan next month.
Krol said he believes they're getting the usual number of top athletes out for the team, but it's the other players who suddenly aren't coming out for the team.
"We just don't get those marginal kids that would like to be involved in something," Krol said. "Even though they might not play much or they might only play a play or two. We used to live with marginal kids. And the marginal kids just don't show up anymore. If you're not the star, you just don't want to be involved. We've had some marginal kids that turned out great, because they worked hard. But we don't even get those kids to try that."
Smith said he was very nervous the night before it was announced the program would continue.
"I was trying not to think about it," Smith said. "[Stonewall Jackson principal Mike] Dorman called and said, 'We're doing it.' I was happy."
Krol said the biggest concern the coaching staff has is having enough players on the team that they don't have to put anyone in jeopardy health-wise. Many players will have to play the majority of the 48 minutes, and they need to be in shape to go 48 minutes.
Krol said that's one reason they can't take it easy on them in practice.
"That's one of those nasty things, I tell you we can't curb [practice] but so much, because we got to get in shape," Krol said. "We've got to hit enough that these kids can protect themselves. And they've got to be able to go 48 minutes."
Krol said the attitude of the players that have showed up has been great from the very beginning.
Smith was on the team when they last made the playoffs in 2011, and said it's tough seeing how far the program has fallen.
"We just don't have the athletes that we used to and it's frustrating," Smith said. "At one point in time I thought it was just that a lot of kids didn't come out, but now we're just so small I don't feel like there's that many athletes in our school anymore. It's frustrating."
One positive has been the JV program, which had a solid turnout this season. Krol said the JV players have shown up for every practice, and that's a good sign for future years.
Stonewall Jackson made it to the state semifinals several times in the late 1990s and early 2000s and became a fixture in the playoffs for a while.
Last year the Generals finished the season with only 23 players, and had a 1-9 season. Krol is entering his 29th season as head coach, and said it's been very hard to see the program go downhill like it has.
"It's a terrible, terrible situation," Krol said. "I've never been in this situation, and I don't ever want to be in it again."
Despite how bad things are with the program right now, Krol said he still loves coaching the game.
"We've had our good times, we've had our bad times," Krol said. "Still, I can't think of anything else I'd rather do."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd