Count ’em up: Dale has played 7 QBs

Rash of in­juries have ham­pered Knights un­der cen­ter this year

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - SPORTS - BY ERIC KOLENICH

When the play­offs be­gin Fri­day night, Thomas Dale will put its start­ing quar­ter­back on the field for the first of­fen­sive play.

Ejay Walker was the Knights’ starter in the pre­sea­son, but a wild out­break of sprained an­kles and bro­ken bones re­sulted in seven play­ers lin­ing up at quar­ter­back

through­out the year.

Walker, who suf­fered two sprained an­kles this year, re­turned last week and hopes to bring some con­sis­tency to the sport’s most im­por­tant po­si­tion.

“I’ve never had a year like this one,” Thomas Dale coach Kevin Tucker said. “It was in­jury af­ter in­jury. It was a weekly oc­cur­rence.”

Foot­ball has the high­est rate of in­jury among high school sports, ac­cord­ing to a study by the Na­tional High Schools Sports-Re­lated In­jury Sur­veil­lance Sys­tem. The group es­ti­mates 460,000 in­juries oc­cur in games and prac­tices each year.

In 2017, high school foot­ball in­juries oc­curred at a rate of 4.36 in­juries per 1,000 ath­le­te­ex­po­sures, where an ath­lete-ex­po­sure is de­fined as one ath­lete

play­ing in one game or prac­tice where he’s at risk for in­jury.

Some in­juries are pre­ventable, said Dr. Dou­glas Cut­ter, the med­i­cal di­rec­tor for HCA Vir­ginia Sports Medicine. Overuse in­juries, like a strained quad mus­cle or a strained ham­string, can be pre­vented. A string of in­juries on a team to the same mus­cle group might in­di­cate a prob­lem with the team’s strength and con­di­tion­ing pro­gram.

But torn ACLs, frac­tured col­lar­bones and sprained an­kles — in­juries that are the re­sult of trauma — are of­ten im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict or limit.

“Those trau­matic in­juries are just bad luck,” he said. “You get hit a cer­tain way, you fall a cer­tain way, you make con­tact with a big­ger per­son. It hap­pens, and there’s noth­ing you can do about it.”

(A poorly main­tained field can be blamed for some trau­matic in­juries, Cut­ter noted. If there’s a hole or divot in the field, play­ers can be more sus­cep­ti­ble to leg in­juries.)

Cut­ter was on the side­line for Thomas Dale’s game against L.C. Bird in Au­gust. On the open­ing kick­off, Thomas Dale linebacker Zach Jones tore his ACL, and quar­ter­back Jasiah Wil­liams later broke his fibula. Not only has Thomas Dale played seven quar­ter­backs, it has lost two start­ing de­fend­ers to sea­son-end­ing in­juries. Rick D’Abreu, a de­fen­sive end com­mit­ted to James Madi­son, also in­jured his an­kle and is sit­ting out the rest of the sea­son.

The Knights aren’t alone — in­juries are on the rise in high school foot­ball. Play­ers are de­vot­ing more of their time than ever to the sport. They’re lift­ing more, get­ting big­ger, run­ning faster and hit­ting each other harder. While coaches say the level of play in the Rich­mond area has never been bet­ter, the in­creased ded­i­ca­tion to the sport also caused an uptick in in­juries.

In 2008, the rate of in­jury in high school foot­ball was 3.65 per 1,000 ath­lete ex­po­sures com­pared to the 4.36 of 2017.

“Th­ese high school kids are no longer high school kids,” Cut­ter said. “They’re not lit­tle guys. They’re harder, big­ger and faster than ever be­fore. They’re hit­ting re­ally hard. This is not the same sport it was 10 years ago.”

It wasn’t un­til the 10th game of the sea­son, Tucker said, that his team played a game in­jury free.

And it was all the way back in Au­gust, in a scrim­mage against High­land Springs, when Walker suf­fered his first in­jury of the year. While be­ing tack­led low, he could feel his an­kle stretch. At first, he thought he could play through it. Then he re­al­ized there was no other op­tion than to rest his leg. He missed the first three games of the sea­son.

Wil­liams took his spot at quar­ter­back but broke his fibula in the sec­ond game of the year against L.C. Bird. Jimmy Hay­den be­came quar­ter­back No. 3 that day. The next week, Hay­den started, but the Knights ex­per­i­mented by play­ing star run­ning back Chris Tyree as a wild­cat QB. In three games, they had gone through four quar­ter­backs.

Walker re­turned for Week 4 against Ma­toaca and re­turned with a bang. He threw for 210 yards and two touch­downs, and Thomas Dale ral­lied to a 28-21 vic­tory. But two weeks later, he was hurt again. While sprint­ing to­ward the side­line, try­ing to avoid a tackle, his foot — his other foot — got caught be­neath him and rolled. This time the pain was higher up his calf.

“I didn’t pic­ture this when I hiked the ball,” he said. “I didn’t pic­ture hurt­ing my an­kle again.”

Walker was re­placed by ju­nior Courte­nay Bur­rell, quar­ter­back No. 5. The coaches de­cided not to re­turn Hay­den to quar­ter­back, be­cause he had been moved to linebacker, re­plac­ing the in­jured Zach Jones. The coaches didn’t want their start­ing quar­ter­back also start­ing at linebacker.

But Bur­rell wasn’t im­mune to the in­jury bug, ei­ther. Against Hopewell in Week 8, he broke his col­lar­bone. So in a pinch, the Knights went with DeAn­gelo Gray, quar­ter­back No. 6, who also ran a wild­cat for­ma­tion. Gray scored four touch­downs, and Thomas Dale se­cured a 49-42 dou­ble-over­time vic­tory over Hopewell.

The fol­low­ing week, the coaches called up Ethan Hamill from the ju­nior var­sity, the sev­enth quar­ter­back of the year, to play against Granby. Then Walker re­turned a week later, Week 10, against Prince Ge­orge. He threw for 140 yards and two touch­downs but was dis­ap­pointed with the one in­ter­cep­tion he gave up.

De­spite all the up­heaval, Thomas Dale went 8-2 this year. The Knights have the ben­e­fit of a star run­ning back on the ros­ter, ju­nior Chris Tyree, who helps carry the of­fen­sive load.

And while be­ing hurt was frus­trat­ing and dif­fi­cult for Walker, it was also ed­u­ca­tional. He said he learned more about scram­bling by watch­ing Wil­liams, and he’s done his part to teach the other quar­ter­backs along the way.

“You get to coach them up a lit­tle,” he said.

MARK GORMUS/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Thomas Dale’s Ejay Walker was the team’s pre­sea­son start­ing quar­ter­back, but he missed time be­cause of two sprained an­kles this year.

MARK GORMUS/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Thomas Dale’s Ejay Walker re­turned to ac­tion in Week 4 af­ter re­cov­er­ing from his first sprained an­kle. Two weeks later, Walker in­jured his other an­kle and was out again.

ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/TIMES -DIS­PATCH

Thomas Dale’s Chris Tyree has car­ried the of­fen­sive load this sea­son. With a rash of in­juries at QB, his rush­ing has been crit­i­cal.

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