It's one day before a big game against Monsignor Bonner High School, and the West Catholic varsity football team is going through its final preparations when the field-goal unit trots onto the team's practice field.
The unit responsible is made up of three players who also happen to be the team's top three wide receivers: Ron Womack, Shaquille James and Patrick Amara.
At first, everything about the initial kick looks good. Womack snaps the ball, James holds, and Amara kicks. But then you realize that "looks" is the operative word here. This is because there are no goal posts on this field. For that matter, calling it a field might be generous. "It's hard, because you can't visualize [the goal posts]," Amara says. "You're just kicking, at nothing."
But that's how it goes for West Catholic these days. This season, the football team has its sights set on another deep run in the PIAA state playoffs, like the one it made last year, when the Burrs made it to the state class AA semifinals before losing to Lancaster Catholic. Or like the one they had in 2010, when they won a state championship.
But this is unlike any season in the school's history. In early January, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced that the school would be shut down. Every student would have to find a new school. But then, on Feb. 24, the Archdiocese reversed itself - thanks in large part to a successful fundraising effort - and announced that West Catholic and three other Archdiocesan high schools that were set to close would remain open. With that, West Catholic (and West Catholic football) was given a second life.
To give a sense of what that life-after-death experience has been like for the small urban school, the team allowed The Daily News an all-access pass to its preparations the week leading up to the Bonner game.
There is a sign on the door of the weight room at West Catholic High School that says, "No Shorts, No Sneaks, No Suitable Gym Clothes: NO ENTRY." As the team lifts weights after school, the rules seem to be taken rather lightly; half the 20-plus players present have rubber-sole school shoes on. Some even more defiantly wear the gray dress pants that are part of the school's uniform.
"I always ask why they don't bring sneakers, but they say they like those shoes," says Burrs coach Brian Fluck, shrugging and laughing as he watches his team complete the routine described on the white board in the back of the room.
The weight room, located behind the school's cafeteria, is smaller than the facilities at most high schools, but the sounds - weights crashing, metal clanging - are familiar to anyone who has ever been around a team.
The facilities are what the players have to work with at a small school like West. Between dwindling enrollment and the cost of operating the school, the athletics program has to make do with what it has, which isn't much.
The atmosphere in the weight room on this day is as laid back as a football practice can be, with many players joking between reps. "We try to keep today loose because of the intensity of practices and games the rest of the week," Fluck says.
The coach speaks to his team after the players finish lifting, and you can feel the tone shifting as they listen to Fluck. The Burrs are coming off a difficult 20-19 overtime loss to reigning Public League AAAA champion George Washington, a game in which they held a 13-0 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Even with the tough loss, Fluck's words are encouraging. "I applaud the effort, passion, and everything else, but the mistakes are what we have to cut out," he says. Whenever he asks the team if they understand the point he is trying to make, every player answers in unison, "Yes, coach."
While the players' official day ends after the lifting session, the coaching staff still has major work to do. At Fluck's home in Aldan, Delaware County, the team's six coaches gather around the living-room television to watch film from the previous game and that of this week's opponent, Bonner.
The term "film" is actually a misnomer, as high-school football technology has evolved like the rest of the world. Footage of all of West's and Bonner's games are stored on the website Hudl's online library. Line coach Brian Weathers handles the constant rewinding and fast-forwarding.
First on the agenda is watching West's loss to Washington, a game that produces plenty of conversation among the staff. Even though West controlled the game until the fourth quarter, the coaches find plenty of errors. A major one is that the Burrs' two outside linebackers were lined up incorrectly for much of the game.
There are also non-football mysteries to be solved, like when the coaches unsuccessfully attempt to figure out the identity of a woman who stood on West's sidelines with a large purple umbrella during the game. "I just assumed she was with the team," Weathers says. "She was standing next to Brian the whole time."
"I didn't know anything about her," Fluck said, petting his dog, a pit bull named Duke. "I was zoned out during the whole game."
The staff is more fixated on the mistakes than the great plays. While almost every negative play is rewound and critiqued a second time, Greg White's 96-yard touchdown receives much less focus, nothing more than a few "nice run" comments.
In overtime of the Washington game, West committed a costly roughing-the-kicker penalty to give their opponents a second-life. When the play is shown on screen, Weathers makes the case that the kicker jumped out too far, but his idea is shot down. "We just have to be smarter," defensive backs coach Virnest Beale says.
"Have you ever seen college or the NFL?" Weathers asks, undeterred. "Kickers don't hop a yard ahead after kicking the ball."
Even though the staff is upset with a few other calls, they agree that the team has to be sharper, especially in pass protection against a blitz. The subject leads to a lively 20-minute debate on how to solve the problem.
Dennis Fluck, Brian's brother, is the Burrs' defensive coordinator, and theoretically has nothing to do with the offense. Still, that doesn't stop him from adding his two cents. "I'm just saying, if that's my defense, we stop that," he says, as the other coaches become more frustrated.
After the discussion finally ends, Fluck downplays his coaching staff's dynamic. "We like to, uh, discuss things," he says.
Shaquille James walks into Fluck's office, scrolls through the recruiting letters on his desk and asks his coach, "Why don't I have no mail?"
"You got to start covering somebody first," Fluck jokes.
Over the years, West Catholic's success and ability to draw kids from all over the area have put the school, and the program, under some scrutiny. Purists are uncomfortable with player movement among high schools, and more than a little suspicious. Indeed, "recruiting" is seen as a dirty word in high-school sports circles, which are supposed to be above such win-at-any-cost mentality.
This year, West faces a different problem. Before the season began, it lost 12 players from last year's team, including star running back David Williams, who transferred to Imhotep Institute Charter High School. Rivals.com lists Williams among the country's top 20 running backs for the class of 2013. And although many students transferred because of tuition or academic problems, the school's near-demise has also played a part.
Those who want to come to West have to meet certain requirements, says Fluck, which include academics and personality. Fluck also doesn't like taking on incoming seniors. If a player is coming from another Catholic League school, Fluck's first move is to call the coach at the former school to try and understand the situation.
"Some people will say, 'What goes around, comes around,' because we do get transfers," Fluck says. "But my thing is that I don't pursue the kids. I don't try to steal them. We end up denying a lot of them."
In January, of course, the word "transferring" took on a whole new meaning at West, as it looked as if everybody involved with the school would have to go elsewhere.
James needed to figure something out fast, since he was a junior at the time, and he eventually decided to attend Cardinal O'Hara. He had even inquired about offseason football workouts at O'Hara, in hopes of easing the transition to the team.
When he heard that West wouldn't close, James didn't think twice about staying. "I love it here," he says. "We're a family."
Today, the West team practices at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Lower Merion, with a heavy emphasis on individual skills. Beale watches the defensive backs and receivers do sprints up the steep hill on the right side of the field, while offensive linemen do blocking drills with Weathers. The quarterbacks work on their mechanics with assistant Virgil Sheppard. Tuesday is a day for getting back into a football rhythm.
Late in the practice, Fluck receives a call notifying him that two of his players have temporarily withdrawn from school, unable to make tuition payments.
"Everyone says we recruit and give all these kids money," Fluck says. "We can't do anything about [them not being able to pay tuition].
"This is our reality," Sheppard says.
To college recruiters and talent evaluators around the country, Jaryd Jones-Smith is a tantalizing prospect: a mammoth 6-7 320-pound offensive tackle.
At West Catholic, he is simply "Burger."
Jones-Smith smiles and shrugs when talking about his nickname. "One day, in around fifth grade, I was playing basketball and somebody said that I looked like a big hamburger." While the logic may be questionable (he does not, in fact, look like a hamburger), the name has stuck.
These days, Jones-Smith has to deal with the attention that comes along with being a high-major football prospect (his top three choices are currently Virginia, Pittsburgh, and North Carolina State). That means not only attention from coaches, but countless websites dedicated to following recruiting. "They text you all the time," he says of the sites.
Burger's talent is on display during Wednesday's hard-hitting practice. Even someone who doesn't know football can easily see why Jones-Smith excels, with his combination of strength and quickness.
And yet, even with his left tackle's contributions, Fluck isn't happy with his offense's execution against the scout defense. More than once, echoes of "Run it again" and "If you don't know the play, ask" ring out from the practice field. Finally, Fluck has a moment of inspiration when evaluating his offensive line. "We're soft," he says. "We're soft as ice cream."
There's an additional motivation for the "soft" criticism, more than the linemen simply not being physical enough for Fluck's liking. The coach is trying hard to maintain the team's physical edge when it comes to their rushing attack. This is because his program is going through a philosophical change. A team long known for its dynamic ground game is becoming quite comfortable putting the ball in the air.
"I'm not really an Eagles fan," ultraconfident quarterback Antwain McCollum says. "I like the Patriots, the way number 12 plays." This makes sense. McCollum's playing style is more similar to Tom Brady's than Michael Vick's. Namely, the sophomore means it when he says he's a pass-first quarterback, choosing to run only if nothing else presents itself.
West's recent success has been built on the running game, with maybe one major receiving target as a secondary option. But with McCollum throwing to Womack, Amara and James, the Burrs now have multiple options. As Weathers says, "We're evolving."
Joshua Gibbs and Eric "Woo" Rutherford sit on training tables in the room behind Fluck's office. The senior linemen figure deeply into the Burrs' plans this year, but both are battling injuries. Rutherford suffered a right ankle sprain in the Washington game, and Gibbs is coming back after fracturing his left foot in June.
This is where West's athletic trainer, Kyle Sheaffer, comes in. "It's rewarding," he says of his work. "None of these kids are spoiled, so you enjoy helping them as much as you can."
According to Sheaffer, players haven't suffered many major injuries in his four years at West, which is amazing when considering they have practiced on some rough fields. Since Fluck took over the head-coaching job in 1999, the Burrs have practiced at five sites.
The field at the seminary, is quiet but situated on a slant. After McCollum overthrows a running back on a swing route, Weathers tells him, "You have to realize that you're a foot higher and adjust."
One person who has fought an uphill battle the whole week is sophomore running back Marquese Collins, who has the unenviable assignment of playing the scout team tailback. Time and time again, Collins receives the ball and is absolutely crushed by West's first-team defense. Time and time again, Collins bounces up and runs back to the huddle.
When asked if he is sore after practice, Collins says, "Yeah. But you can't let nobody see that."
The objective of Friday's practice is to make sure the players understand their assignments. It's a final exam of sorts. There's no hitting, so players wear shorts with their helmets and shoulder pads.
All told, the players have a relatively easy day. Practice only lasts a little more than one hour, 15 minutes. But like Monday, Fluck and his staff are just getting started. After practice, they head off to scout future opponents.
West's staff usually divvies up scouting responsibilities so they can see as many as three games at the same time. On this night, two trips are made: Weathers heads to Levittown and checks out AA foe Conwell-Egan play Olney. Brian and Dennis Fluck join line coach Larry Bartel on a trip to Warminster to watch next week's opponent, Archbishop Wood, take on Frankford.
Even though Wood and West aren't in direct competition due to PIAA classifications, they still have a healthy rivalry. From 2003-07, the two schools played for the now-defunct Catholic League Blue Division title five straight times, and they have continued to play almost every year since. Wood has won the last two games, including a 28-0 beat-down last year en route to a PIAA AAA state title.
Brian Fluck, sitting on the top row of bleachers at William Tennant High School, confidently guesses Wood's offensive plays after they break the huddle. If familiarity breeds contempt, it also can provide predictive powers.
"Toss," he says. The play is a toss.
"Draw," he says later. The play is a draw.
A little later: "He's going deep now. I can feel it in my bones." The play, a wide-receiver screen, is easily blown up by a Frankford defender. "Maybe he should have went deep," Fluck says, laughing.
West's coaching staff is already loose by the time the team starts to stretch on the Upper Darby High School field. "Den, you treating us the Dairy Queen if we win?" Sheppard asks Dennis Fluck.
Talking to his team in the locker room before the game, Fluck knows there's no more preparation to be done. If West loses, it's a wasted week. Although the game is a nonleague affair and a loss wouldn't sink the Burrs' state-title hopes, it's important as a rivalry game.
Even more important is West's mindset: It must believe it's the better team.
Fluck is matter-of-fact in his short pregame speech. "You put them jerseys on, you give everything you have. And if we give everything we have today, we should be able to take care of business.'
After the team runs out of the locker room, chanting on the way to the field, the coach says, "Well, at least we're loose."
As soon the game starts, there's a breakdown that serves as a precursor of what's to come. For the second straight game, the coaches' headsets don't work and Weathers is forced to the sidelines from his usual perch atop the bleachers. Nothing on the day is going to come easy for West Catholic.
The game starts and it soon becomes clear just how loose the Burrs are.
In fact, it's safe to call the half an unmitigated disaster in all three phases of the game. The offense not only fails to score, it fumbles three times. The defense isn't able to stop the run and Bonner quarterback Jim Haley is allowed to do whatever he wants. Even the special teams gets in on the action, muffing a punt that Bonner recovers.
Bonner takes a 24-0 lead into the half, but the game didn't even feel that close. West activities director Mary DeMasi, who attends every game, says it's the worst half of football she's seen the Burrs play since 2005.
Surprisingly, Fluck is mostly calm with his team at halftime. "What do we got to lose?" he asks. "We're down 24. We got a whole second half to take care of business, but it's going to happen one series at a time."
Fluck may have been confident his team could claw its way back into the game, but it's hard to imagine he was prepared for what transpired in the second half.
On the half's opening kickoff, Womack scoops up a squib kick, beats a bunch of Bonner defenders down West's sideline and makes it all the way to the Bonner 10. Greg White scores on the next play: 24-6.
Then the shift focuses to the defense. At halftime, Dennis Fluck made the decision to put two of his linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage to make Bonner throw. The Friars go three-and-out on their first series. White answers with another touchdown run and: 24-14.
The rest of the half is really a blur, a wave of emotion on the West sidelines. After the defense forces two more fumbles, and the offense quickly capitalizes, the Burrs hold a 28-24 lead at the end of three quarters.
During the comeback, West's skill players deal with plethora of injuries. James plays with a hip contusion while Womack and White have cramps. To combat the cramps, Sheaffer has the players drink Gatorade, stretches them out, and even has Womack eat a banana. They all return to the game.
At one point, Gibbs is winded and needs a break due to how much his unit is on the field during the quarter. Rutherford, playing on defense, is fresh and fills in at guard. "If you didn't break your foot, you'd be in game shape Gibbs," Weathers tells his right guard sarcastically.
After a Bonner fake punt goes awry early in the fourth quarter, Fluck sees an opportunity and immediately takes a deep shot off the turnover. Bartel calls this Fluck's "Air Coryell" mode. McCollum executes the play perfectly, going over the top of the defense and hitting James in stride for a 37-yard touchdown. The conversion pass to Dom Toney makes it 36-24 West.
White would later add another touchdown, his fifth of the day, off an interception. The turnover is the fourth caused by Dennis' defense. After being down by 24, West ends up winning, 42-24.
As the game winds down, Weathers singles out freshman defensive end Tymir Oliver. "You are going to be a monster by the time you're a senior. We just have to get you in the weight room."
Last January, it didn't seem as if Oliver would have the opportunity to be a freshman at West, much less a senior. Things change. Just ask Bonner.
West now has some momentum heading into the rest of the schedule. To the genuine excitement of their teammates, McCollum, "Burger" and White receive game balls.
After the game, a relieved Fluck asks his coaches if they wanted to go out to get something to eat before he turns his attention to Wood. No word on if they went to Dairy Queen.