Throughout a typical season, much of the work happens in the weight room — music blaring, spotters shouting, numbers growing, stenches permeating. “I will admit: It does smell horrible,” Chantilly junior defensive end Aiden Gobaira said. “It’s disgusting. But we all embrace it. It’s so much fun.”
“It’s almost like being trapped in an escape room,” Chantilly senior linebacker Nolan Riley said. “You have to work with each other to get to your goal and get out. It builds camaraderie.”
Of all the changes that might take place over the course of a high school career, development in the weight room is somewhat controllable. Getting bigger, faster and stronger depends on hard work. And along the way, friendships grow inside that arduous environment.
The Chargers’ turnaround began there. In 2017, Curry’s first season as head coach, Chantilly finished 0-10. He figured the most effective and efficient way to effect change would be in the weight room. He didn’t just want his players to show up for year-round workouts; he wanted them to get excited about doing so.
“It wasn’t that we tried to lock them in the weight room and say, ‘Let’s come together now,’ ” Curry said. “It was just, ‘Hey, we’re going to be there, we’re going to get to know each other there, we’re going to work hard there, but it’s going to be one piece of that culture puzzle that we’re going to assemble.’ And it took time. That’s definitely a big jigsaw to put together over a number of years.”
In 2018, Chantilly improved to 3-7. The breakthrough came last fall, when the Chargers surprised many in Northern Virginia by going 8-3 and earning a playoff spot. It became clear to players, coaches and fans that the program was changing. That upward trajectory is one of the reasons this pandemic has not stopped the team from working out.
“We don’t want to lose again,” Gobaira said. “We don’t want that season to be a fluke. So we’re going to work even harder.”
In the first few weeks of the shutdown, Curry saw signs of commitment being maintained. One player sent him a picture of the squat and bench rack he made: a couple of two-by-fours, two Home Depot buckets and concrete blocks. The coach, still waiting for his own workout equipment to arrive, copied the design.
For Riley, the senior linebacker, the pandemic meant that his comeback from a torn ACL suffered just before his junior season would be extended by a few months. He had been looking forward to getting back to the field in time to be a leader, to get a taste of his team’s newfound success.
In March, he stayed in shape by using the workout equipment his family keeps in the garage: a squat rack, a row machine, a few benches. Soon he invited Gobaira, who lives up the street, to join him. In May, he sent out texts to more and more teammates, offering them a chance to use his garage, three or four people at a time.
“Sometimes we’d have a few come Saturday in the morning and another shift come Saturday afternoon, and we’d roll through a workout plan,” Riley said. “The big thing is we don’t want to have our momentum halted.”
Not only did it give some of the team a chance to spend time together, it allowed for glimpses of that weight room feeling. Sometimes they would hook up toe straps to Riley’s car and see how far it could be pulled. In moments such as that, with one or two players testing the limits of their body and a group of friends cheering them on, it was easy to forget that they weren’t actually back at school.
By the summer, a group of players held regular, distanced workouts on the fields at Chantilly. One night an assistant coach sent a video to Curry. He had gone up to the school on a walk with his kids and found some of their players grinding away.
“It really made us proud that we had ignited that passion,” he said. “They took ownership of it.”
In late September, the program started its first in-person activity in six months: an outdoor, distanced workout. Held twice a week in two shifts to avoid large numbers, the workouts can’t involve much equipment or contact. They don’t much resemble the long, program-altering weight room sessions of years past. But they provide a way to get better. Together or apart, that’s always the goal.