For Langley, practice carries sense of doom
Two hours after their first practice in full pads was scheduled to start, after a devastating delivery of new eligibility rules and a terrible turnout of players with proper forms, the Langley Mustangs finally took the field and started to stretch.
All eight of them.
A man walking laps around the cinder track encircling the football field at Pittsburgh Classical Academy/Greenway stopped near the equipment room to ask the groundskeeper, "Hey, that isn't the whole team, is it?"
Monday was supposed to mark the opening of high school football in Pennsylvania. At Langley, it felt like the beginning of the end.
Located in the Sheraden section of the West End, Langley is one of two high schools (along with Oliver) recommended for closure by Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane after the 2011-12 school year.
"I hate that the school is closing. I want to finish what I started. People ask, why• I live three minutes away. I teach at Langley. I'm invested in the community," said Langley fifth-year coach Ken Wright, a special-education teacher who lives in Chartiers City. "Every year, it's a new challenge. It's one thing after another. I accepted that as head coach. I just wish we could finish what we started here because we're building a program."
Langley had the second smallest enrollment (only Westinghouse is smaller) of the seven City League football programs in 2009, with 224 boys in grades 9-11, and it often competes as a Class AA school against Quad-A opponents. Langley and Oliver could follow Peabody, Schenley and South Vo-Tech in closing their doors, with Wright worrying that it will without ever winning a City League football title in 88 years.
"There's a lot of uncertainty right now, until the school board votes," City League athletic director Mike Gavlik said. "We have to re-evaluate and see what makes sense for Pittsburgh Public Schools athletes."
Still, Wright has hope. After going 0-10 in his first season, the Mustangs made the PIAA playoffs in 2008. They were winless again in '09 but started 4-2 last season before losing their final four games. Langley returns starting quarterback Jaquan Green, a senior who passed for 1,086 yards last season, and a cast of skill players for its spread offense.
Initially, a sense of impending doom permeated the first practice, especially after Langley athletic director Karen Arnold and Wright told the team about the district's new academic eligibility policy. Students with a grade-point average below 1.5 would miss the entire season instead of just the first 15 days of school — the equivalent of the first three games — before being cleared.
Arnold and Wright called players from each class to the locker room, informing them individually of their status. During this process, their teammates waited anxiously to learn their fate. When it was over, the Mustangs had lost five of the 20 players who showed up, including four two-way starters, a crushing blow to the team's morale.
"It's very frustrating, a big hurt to our football team," said Langley senior multi-purpose back Tray Eason, who's eligible. "You get scared. We all love the game and want to play. We were nervous. It's the rules, and rules are rules. It's a lesson learned. We play sports, but we're students, too."
For the ineligible players, there was an immediate sense of regret.
"I don't know what I'm going to do now," said Ray Harrison, a running back/linebacker who will repeat his sophomore year because he didn't attend summer school. "I wish I could go back and have been focused."
Wright agrees with the policy, passed this summer, just not the timing. The grades are based on the third and fourth quarters of the 2010-11 school year, the offseason for the football program. He thinks it should have gone into effect in the second quarter of this school year, so that students would have been aware of the criteria before being punished by it.
"It's never been like this," Wright said. "This is a first. It's discouraging. The kids should have taken care of their business. We'll still field a team. We'll be ready for the season."
First, the Mustangs have to get ready for practice, which was supposed to start at 8 a.m. Eligibility isn't the only issue. Only nine of the 20 players arrived with physical exam forms, which disturbs Wright because the school offered them for free last spring. Several others needed a ride to Langley to get equipment.
It was 10:13 by the time the first player in full pads took the field. Twelve minutes later, practice was interrupted by rain and lightning.
Some of the players ruled academically ineligible decide to practice anyway, affording the Mustangs the opportunity to conduct a seven-on-seven session. It's supposed to be non-contact, but the players couldn;t resist and started popping each other.
Eason runs into Wright, standing in the middle of the defense, drawing laughs from the coach and the players — all 15 of them.
"We have two words: Go hard," Eason said. "Play every game like it's your last. It's going to be hard. If this is the last year, we've got to focus.
"Wherever we may go, we'll never forget this school."