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By Jeff White
NORFOLK — At Old Dominion University’s S.B. Ballard Stadium, Demetrius “Petey” Allen stood on the sideline Saturday afternoon, looking as fit and trim as when he bedeviled would-be tacklers as a UVa football player in ’90s.
What this graduate of Norfolk’s Granby High saw on the field in front of him pleased him. So did the scene in the stands behind him.
“I think it shows they’re really serious about having a presence down here in Hampton Roads,” said Allen, a graduate of Norfolk’s Granby High. “And as you can see, I think people are excited about it.”
For years, UVa has asked players and fans from the state’s Tidewater region — popularly known these days as the “7-5-7” — to travel to Charlottesville. On this cool, sunny spring day, the Cavaliers came to the 7-5-7.
“It was homecoming for us,” said all-ACC cornerback Ras-I Dowling, who grew up in Chesapeake.
On ODU’s Foreman Field, the Wahoos and their new head coach, Mike London, held a combination practice/scrimmage before about 2,100 appreciative fans.
“We’re trying to raise the level of enthusiasm and support down here,” said London, a graduate of Hampton’s Bethel High.
During a break in the action, London took the microphone from his boss, Craig Littlepage. Virginia’s athletics director had thanked the crowd for turning out, and London echoed those comments.
“I need you,” London told the fans. “We need you. We appreciate your support, and we appreciate the high school coaches who came out this morning. We want to live in this area.”
Earlier in the day, the staffs from ODU and UVa had put on a clinic that drew about 80 high school coaches.
The response from fans and coaches alike was “fantastic,” said London. “The high school coaches that came to the clinic, I appreciate that. And when fans come out and they cheer you, and the players feel that kind of appreciation, then they play hard.
“We’re trying to cultivate our fan base, get them back, get them behind us again and hopefully make the Virginia faithful proud of us.”
During the ’90s, many of UVa’s best players, from Terry Kirby to Chris Slade to Aaron Brooks to Skeet Jones to Aaron Mundy, were from Tidewater. For the past decade, however, Virginia Tech has dominated recruiting in that region. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the Hokies have also dominated their series with the Cavaliers during that span.
“There’s great football all over the Hampton Roads area,” Allen said, “and I think we lost our presence down here. I’m just glad Coach London is making an effort to get down here.”
So are the players on UVa’s roster who grew up in the 7-5-7. Outside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds, a graduate of Norfolk’s Maury High, said he had a cheering section of about 60 friends and relatives Saturday.
“A lot of people haven’t seen us play, haven’t really seen me play in awhile,” said Reynolds, a rising sophomore. “It was a good experience coming down here in this atmosphere, just enjoying the moment. We’re just having the time of our lives down here.”
Reynolds’ classmates include wideout Tim Smith and tailback Perry Jones, graduates of Chesapeake’s Oscar Smith High.
“I was born and raised in the 7-5-7,” Smith said. “It was a big for me. My whole family was out here, a lot of friends, a lot of people who watched me at Oscar Smith. It just felt like home to me.”
Jones said: “It was a great experience, coming back and seeing a lot of people I know who used to follow me.”
Virginia’s spring game is April 10 at Scott Stadium. Some of the fans at ODU on Saturday may have expected a preview of that game, but for about 90 minutes, the ‘Hoos split up and worked in groups on different parts of the field. Before the more crowd-pleasing portion of the afternoon took place — the 11-on-11 work — there were special-teams drills and position drills.
“I accomplished what I wanted to do on the field,” London said. “I know people maybe thought it was going to be a ‘scrimmage’ scrimmage, but I had to get in practice situations that sometimes don’t normally happen in a scrimmage.
“So I took care of that, and we got a lot of work in that way, and then the scrimmage kind of was the icing on the cake in terms of now putting them in positions with the officials back there, just 11 on 11 and all that. I’m pleased coming out of here knowing that there’s some good things that happened, but like always you have to improve and get better at other things.”
The team left Charlottesville on Friday afternoon. They traveled to Norfolk by bus and stayed in a local hotel Friday night.
“ODU was very hospitable for letting us use their facilities today, and I was very impressed,” quarterback Marc Verica said. “This is a very nice stadium, very nice locker room. And then another thing about today was it gave our younger guys a chance to kind of get that feeling of an away game, to go on the road and stay in a hotel and prepare and play. So that simulation was a very valuable aspect of today.”
Verica, who’ll be a fifth-year senior, is from the Philadelphia area — the 6-1-0, if you will — but he understands why UVa’s coaching staff is targeting Tidewater.
“I think 7-5-7 kind of transcends more than just an area code,” Verica said. “It’s almost become more of like a culture and a lifestyle that a lot of people like to represent from this area. And they seem to historically produce some pretty good talent, and I think it’s wise for us to try and tap into this region more, because there’s definitely a wealth of kids coming out of this region.”
At the end of the scrimmage, the players gathered at midfield. Then they turned to face to the stands and raised their helmets. The fans returned the salute with cheers.
Tidewater isn’t the only part of the state, of course, that produces gifted football players, and London said UVa may hold similar events in Richmond and Northern Virginia in years to come.
“We’re going to do it again,” he said. “It’s just a question of where and when.”
Among the coaches on the sideline Saturday was Tommy Reamon of Virginia Beach’s Landstown High. At Gloucester High, Reamon coached Aaron Taliaferro, who’s now a linebacker at UVa.
Reamon, who coached the Vick brothers at Warwick High in Newport News, has followed UVa football for many years. He’s a big fan of London, who replaced Al Groh after the 2009 season.
“It’s evident that there’s a new spirit up there,” Reamon said.