By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The athletic teams from the four high schools in the city of Hampton — Phoebus, Bethel, Kecoughtan and, of course, Hampton — compete in the rugged Peninsula District, and each plays its home football games at Darling Stadium.
So UVa head coach Mike London won’t need directions to the site of his football team’s third practice of the spring. He’s a Bethel graduate. Neither will cornerbacks coach Chip West (Kecoughtan) nor graduate assistant Marques Hagans (Hampton). The same is true for four of London’s players: safety LoVanté Battle (Phoebus), cornerback Rijo Walker (Bethel), linebacker Daquan “Da-Da” Romero (Phoebus) and quarterback David Watford (Hampton).
The practice, the Cavaliers’ first in full pads this spring, is scheduled to run from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at Darling Stadium. It’s open to the public, as were the first two this week in Charlottesville. Gates open at noon, and admission is free.
“It’s always great to go back home,” London said after practice Friday morning at UVa.
With representatives of every Hampton high school represented in his program, London noted, the Cavaliers “got the whole area covered. There’s deep roots there, for sure.”
Battle will be a junior in the fall. Romero and Watford (a cousin of Hagans) are freshmen who enrolled at UVa in January. All three are thrilled are returning to Hampton.
“It’s a pretty big day,” Romero said Friday morning. “Going back to the home crowd and the people who really supported our careers.”
London joked that, because of nerves, Watford may throw the ball into the stands Saturday, and Romero may jump offsides. But Watford said he doesn’t feel pressure, “because I’m still learning. It’s just good to go back home.”
Playing at his hometown stadium again will be “very cool,” Watford said. “I’m just happy to come back so everybody can come see me, see how hard I’ve been working. I’m trying to get everything under my belt and just trying to learn out here.”
Will the local guys have cheering sections at Darling Stadium? Of course.
“I got my fan club,” Watford said with a smile. “My mom, my dad, everybody. Trying to get Grandpa out there, all my aunts and my uncles, my cousins, all my friends from high school, everybody. I told everybody to come out and see me.”
Romero said his 3-year-old son, Brandon, will be there Saturday, along with “my mother, my sister, my stepdad. It’s going to be great.”
Battle and Romero had some fun at Watford’s expense after practice Friday morning. Asked about their favorite memories of playing at Darling Stadium, each brought up a Phoebus victory over Hampton.
Romero won’t soon forget his 6-yard touchdown catch, on fourth-and-goal late in the fourth quarter Nov. 26, that helped the Phantoms rally for a 12-7 win over the Crabbers in the Eastern Region, Division 5 championship game.
Battle said: “The game that sticks out in my mind the most from high school was in 2008, when we played against Hampton. Because not only are there three people from that game here at UVa now, but the quarterback from Hampton, David Watford, also threw me a touchdown pass.”
Watford hasn’t forgotten either, he acknowledged with a smile.
“It was a pick-six,” Watford said of the interception. “I was in 10th grade, and that was my first year as starting quarterback. So everything I did, just like now, everything was fast moving.
“I didn’t see Battle, but I saw my man. I threw the ball, and here comes Battle, catching the ball and running downfield. I’m trying to chase after him, but he scores.”
London, who attended another Tidewater high school, Tabb, before transferring to Bethel, is heading into his second season as UVa’s head coach. The Wahoos held an open practice last spring at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. The day went well so the decision to return to the “7-5-7” — an especially talent-rich region of the state — was an easy one.
Nine members of UVa’s latest recruiting class, including Romero, Watford and Phoebus senior Caleb Taylor, are from Tidewater. For numerous reasons, London said, he’s interested in “trying to bring Virginia football to the fan base down in that area. That’s what’s really important. And then the following weekend we’ll be up in Northern Virginia. And next year we’ll be at other places.
“As long as the NCAA allows it and our administration is backing us, we’re going to continue to do things like that.”
Virginia will hold another open practice March 26 at Episcopal High in Alexandria. The Cavaliers’ spring game is April 2 at Scott Stadium.
A strong turnout of former UVa players is expected Saturday in Hampton. Among those planning to attend the practice are Kevin Gould, Billy Griggs, Derek Jenkins, Mike Newhall, Gary Phelps, Ed Reynolds, Kevin Riccio, Billy Smith and Quentin Walker.
Phelps’ son Brandon, a highly regarded cornerback from Damascus High in Maryland, signed a letter of intent with UVa in February.
WORTHY CAUSE: Fans are asked to bring cans of food to Darling Stadum. Donations will go to the Food Bank of the Virginia Peninsula, which serves residents in the cities of Hampton, Newport News, Poquoson and Williamsburg and in the counties of Glouchester, James City, Mathews, Surry and York.
“It’s football, and that’s important,” London said, “but there’s also some community things that we can ask people to rally around and do as well.”