Category Archives: Fairfax County Times

Kyle Simmons trusts a unique cure for cancer: his football team

Westfield football coach Kyle Simmons sits alone in front of the TV, absorbing painkillers and game film on another hot August afternoon.

The drowsy mentor tilts his head back gingerly to let another sip of the 10­-milliliter dose slide slowly down his scorched throat, his eyes never leaving the screen. His right hand reaches for a pen to jot down a missed block near the sideline, his left for a sip of ice cold water that he ends up spitting back out, a precaution against coughing fits triggered by saliva buildup.

To Simmons, 10 milliliters of medication is 30 minutes of prep time. By then the flames burning his throat have died down to allow passage for another liquid meal. The shake always contains some combination of heavy cream, full fat yogurt, full fat milk, raspberries and protein powder, a high­-calorie concoction that takes him over an hour to work through.

Soon enough he rises from his chair and puts on his shoes. Nothing can keep the coach from the place he belongs, not the radical tonsillectomy operation that won’t let him speak, nor the lymph node dissection that left 10 staples snaking down his neck.

Kyle Simmons is heading to practice, cancer be damned. Continue reading Kyle Simmons trusts a unique cure for cancer: his football team

Memory of coach propels Holmes Run Acres swimmers

(Photo by Shamus Ian Fatzinger/Fairfax Times)

Clayton Joyner might be gone, but to the swimmers at Holmes Run Acres Pool, he’s all around them all the time.

Thunder shakes the sky when their former coach jumps up and down, his enthusiasm rippling across the pool to push his swimmers just a bit faster. Lightning strikes when he shouts quick bursts of encouragement to keep them motivated. Even clear weather is Clayton, his upbeat demeanor shining down on everyone at once.

“I just feel like he’s still here,” said Julie Surette, an 11­-year-­old swimmer for the Hurricanes.

Joyner, a co­-head swim coach at Holmes Run Acres for the past 11 years, died May 5 following a massive heart attack he suffered two weeks earlier. He was 29 years old. Continue reading Memory of coach propels Holmes Run Acres swimmers

Madison baseball’s long rise to the top

(Photo by Shamus Ian Fatzinger/Fairfax Times)

Just beyond a basketball hoop in the Madison High gym, tucked behind the door festooned with baseball photos and newspaper clippings, an artist puts the finishing touches on his latest masterpiece. His right hand works furiously across the canvas before him, his back hunched below a clock fast approaching 3 p.m.

Finally, Mark “Pudge” Gjormand drops his pen and emerges with his finished handiwork: a wrinkled piece of paper full of chicken scratch. He immediately likens it to a Picasso painting.

“Or maybe a Rembrandt,” he says. “Or Michelangelo.”

Gjormand’s work may not be as alluring as a Picasso classic, but it’s nearly as meticulous. The 8×11 sheet reflects a mind churning on equal parts control and detail: “3:25: Inf. Ground ball drill/Get dirty.” … “3:40: Stations: Live pick throw down/Forehand.” … “3:50: Multipurpose 1, 2, 3.”

Only two phrases on the computer paper are typed. At the top is the whole enterprise: “James Madison High School Baseball.” At the bottom is what drives it: “Prepare to perform.”

Like an architect clutching a blueprint, Gjormand holds the practice plan up to the light to get a final look. It’s the guide to his team’s improvement and, in his eyes, the reason his baseball program has been Northern Virginia’s most consistent over the last dozen years.

“I want my kids to feel like they’ve done four hours of work in a two-­hour practice,” Gjormand says. “If we just came out and did [batting practice] and did the same thing every day, we would lose them. You’ve got to keep them sharp mentally.”

Now in his 19th year at the helm, Gjormand knows exactly where today’s practice plan will go. He’ll place it right on top of yesterday’s, in one of three drawers storing every practice plan he’s ever devised, including ones for his kids’ little league teams.

Before he does that, though, Gjormand folds the plan up as he rushes out the door. He needs to be on the field at 3:05 p.m. Continue reading Madison baseball’s long rise to the top

Blind runner looks to conquer Boston Marathon

Kyle Robidoux’s office door closed shut at 11 a.m., just as it always does at that hour. His coworkers didn’t need to ask where he was going. They knew he’d be back by noon from his six­-mile run, another small step in an unlikely journey to his first Boston Marathon.

Robidoux absorbed the icy Boston air and started down his familiar path through Mason Square, bounding down Essex Street before hanging a right on Commonwealth Avenue. He then crossed a bridge over the Charles River and continued on the Esplanade, passing only a few geese cackling despondently alongside frozen waters.

Finally, a fellow runner smiled as she passed nearby, but Robidoux kept his steely gaze straight ahead. The woman shrugged off the encounter and kept grinding. She couldn’t have known the man she passed was legally blind. Continue reading Blind runner looks to conquer Boston Marathon

View from the Bleachers: VHSL needs to rethink basketball

As the Edison girls’ basketball game against Highland Springs wound to a close Wednesday, a colleague of mine from The Richmond Times Dispatch tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the stands at the far end of the court. Woodson High’s renowned Cavalry was pouring into the gym, their white T­-shirts and face paint creating a formidable sea of uniformity in preparation for the next game.

“Can you believe how many they brought?”

I shook my head in amazement, but then I looked to the other end of the court, where casual spectators of varying ages scattered the bleachers.

“You should have seen the place last week,” I replied.

That’s when the irony of the situation hit me. Wasn’t this supposed to be the state tournament? The Final Four, even? Why was I ribbing my fellow reporter about last week’s regional competition?

Nothing about last Saturday’s state semifinal action at Robinson Secondary had the makings of high school basketball’s biggest stage. Boys and girls games were alternating back and forth, mixing various classifications and confusing spectators to the point where even one of the reporters next to me kept needing to clarify which teams were playing where and when.

Even the stage itself seemed odd. Rather than unfold in a college arena — as the state final four has traditionally done — Saturday’s games were held in Robinson’s gym, same as last week’s 6A North Region semifinals. It was my fourth time covering Woodson at that gym this season, and it wasn’t even the best attended of the four, not even close.

For all Woodson’s hard work, for all the obstacles they had to overcome and tragedies they needed to reconcile, this is what they ended up with: a veritable home defeat in the state final four. Despite making it just as far as they did last year, the Cavaliers never even got out of the county. Continue reading View from the Bleachers: VHSL needs to rethink basketball

View from the Bleachers: Beyond the buzzer beater

The Metress family simply can’t catch a break lately. Just when everyone thought all the hullabaloo over the Jan. 10 Annandale buzzer beater was over, it happened again. Except this time the victim wasn’t Lake Braddock coach Brian Metress — it was his brother, Darren “Dip” Metress, the head coach of the Georgia Regents University Augusta men’s basketball team.

Dip’s Division II squad found itself leading Georgia College on Monday night 55­-54 with 0.3 left on the clock. Just as his brother had done a week and a half earlier, Dip sent his boys onto the floor to defend an inbound pass that would decide the game’s outcome. Seemingly all they needed to do was protect the rim to prevent a tap­-in.

Sure enough, a Georgia College player got free off a screen, caught the lob near the rim and scored to give his team a dramatic 56­-55 victory. Dip Metress was irate, and he had every right to be. Video replay shows the player briefly gaining possession of the ball in the air before releasing it into the basket. And as the Metress family knows all too well, basketball rules dictate that a player can’t gain possession of the ball and get off a shot with 0.3 or less on the clock — it’s tap­-in or bust.

Chapter two of the Metress inbound debacle wasn’t fair, but it also wasn’t the same as the original sequence that played out on Annandale High’s home court earlier this month. The fate of Dip’s team hinged on a judgment call by the officials. The game­-winning shot was a close call, so close that it’s difficult to decipher whether the player gains possession unless you scrutinize it carefully in the replay clip. Right or wrong, the officials determined he had indeed executed a legal tap­-in.

Continue reading View from the Bleachers: Beyond the buzzer beater

Controversial call raises questions about Virginia High School League

Grant Gittens’s buzzer beater last Friday night did more than lift Annandale to an unlikely double-overtime victory against Conference 7 rival Lake Braddock. Before his three­-point heave sent frenzied students pouring onto the court in celebration, the senior guard ignited an even greater uproar the moment he touched the ball.

The play still echoing through the halls of both schools began under Annandale’s basket with 0.2 of a second left to play in double overtime. His team leading 78­-77, Lake Braddock coach Brian Metress had just called timeout to confirm with the referee that the only shot Annandale could get off in time was a tip. According to Metress, the referee confirmed it, and Bruins assistant Cornell Felton reconfirmed it with the official two more times before the players got into position for the final play.

Metress, now in his 30th year coaching high school ball in Northern Virginia, had encountered this scenario before. It summoned a rule that took hold at the high school, college and professional levels when shot clocks were modified to include tenths of a second in the early 1990s. According to Section 5­2­5 of the National Federation of High Schools rule book, “When play is resumed with a throw­-in or free throw and three­-tenths (.3) of a second or less remains on the clock, the player may not gain control of the ball and try for a field goal. In this situation, only a tap could score.”

After reiterating that rule to his team, Metress sent his five tallest players onto the court, three of them standing at least 6­-feet­-6­-inches.

“I said, ‘Nobody leaves the lane,’” Metress recalled on Monday. “‘Don’t guard anybody on the three-point line, don’t guard anybody on a jump shot. Only guard the guys who they might throw a lob to.'”

On the other side, second­-year Annandale coach Matt Behne instructed two of his best leapers to prepare themselves for a lob into the paint. He sent another player onto the far wing and told Gittens to stand on the other wing near junior point guard Austin Hall, who would throw the inbound pass.

“You put guys in a position, you tell them what to do, but they’re high school kids, they’re teenagers,” Behne said Tuesday, confirming that he and his players were aware of the aforementioned rule. “It’s a pressure situation. They’re going to try to follow what you say, but you teach guys in basketball to be proactive instead of reactive because it’s all about seeing something and making a change. You have to do that on the fly as you play offense and defense.

“My guy saw five guys defending the one guy we wanted to get the ball to, and he made a decision.” Continue reading Controversial call raises questions about Virginia High School League

George Mason professors pioneer new way to study concussions

(Photo by Shamus Ian Fatzinger/Fairfax Times)

The third floor of Bull Run Hall on George Mason University’s Prince William campus plays host to plenty of mind­-bending science projects:­ laser capture microdissection, protein electronics and high­-resolution mass spectrometry are just a few of the technologies awaiting professors and students in the laboratory.

Yet the most complex and potentially influential findings to emerge from the school’s College of Science might come down to this: a kid spitting in a cup after football practice.

It happens once a week to the 12­- and 13­-year-­old kids playing for the Jets, an A­ League football team in the Central Loudoun Youth Football League. Athletic trainers collect the players’ saliva samples and send them to Dr. Shane Caswell, a George Mason professor and pioneer of the world’s first salivary biobank designed for concussion research in athletes.

Caswell stores the saliva in a freezer he dubs the “spit repository,” from which he eventually extracts the samples and runs them through sophisticated machinery to determine changes in protein variance that no other technique has been able to identify. Comparing each kid’s spit samples to previous submissions, he hopes to uncover a handful of proteins that can detect concussions.

Working alongside Caswell is another Mason professor, Dr. Chip Petricoin. Long accustomed to studying protein biomarkers for cancer research, Petricoin never imagined he’d wind up plying his trade for studies on traumatic brain injury and concussions. Continue reading George Mason professors pioneer new way to study concussions

Grant Hill pursues life beyond basketball


The ball had to stop bouncing eventually, but when it finally did, many disoriented onlookers needed a minute to pause and regain their bearings.

Could he really be done? Could Grant Hill, the oldest player in the NBA, a mainstay in the league long before the world knew LeBron James or even the Internet, really be calling it quits?

Even Shaquille O’Neal, whose own NBA perpetuity finally ended two years ago on the day, waved his hand in disbelief when the man only a few months his junior made the June 1 announcement on TNT’s NBA Finals pregame show. Hill’s casual declaration of closure took a minute to sink in, as if his contemporaries were suddenly unable to recognize him for a moment.

The retirement of a 40­-year-­old athlete well past his prime was hardly earth­shattering news, but it seemed to throw off some kind of order, like removing a star from the night sky. Here was a man who had been making his presence felt in the NBA longer than just about any high school student today has been alive, someone who was turning heads on the court before Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Tony Parker and Kevin Durant were even born. And here he was looking relieved, ready to drop 33 years of basketball with the same ease he dropped all those buckets.

But the most accomplished baller ever to come out of Reston isn’t really done. In fact, he’s just getting started.

Continue reading Grant Hill pursues life beyond basketball

Lake Braddock senior battles for comeback of his life

(Photo by Shamus Fatzinger/Fairfax Times)

His fingers twitched before wrapping around the handles of a wheelchair that was about to be left behind, at least for the time being. With a wary physical therapist by his side, Nick Balenger felt the hospital hallway open up as he slowly rose out of his chair and stared at his toughest challenge yet. A walk to the end of the hall seemed a daunting task for a boy who could manage little more than wiggle a few fingers four weeks earlier.

Tuesday’s 50­-foot trek marked the latest accomplishment of a high school senior bent on defying the limitations of paralysis on the road leading back to a normal life. Even with a platform walker at his aid, a walk of any length was barely believable for someone so closely removed from the July 25 accident that changed everything.

On that day, Balenger — a standout pitcher for Lake Braddock Secondary School’s state champion baseball team — went for a swim at Makena Beach alongside his father during the family’s much­-anticipated Hawaiian vacation. Balenger somersaulted into a wave and slammed against the underlying sandbar, leaving him immobilized before his dad pulled him out of the water. Continue reading Lake Braddock senior battles for comeback of his life