All-Met Sports, The Washington Post

Al Thomas, legendary Maryland high school football coach, dies at 76

There were two things that mattered most to Maryland high school coaching legend Al Thomas: family and football. In his later years, as his health declined, his time spent out of the house was at his grandsons’ sports games or area football practices.

“He was always a football coach,” said his son, Marc Thomas. “He really didn’t have much else in his life aside from being a football coach and a father.”

Al Thomas won a record eight state championships in his more than four decades on the sideline. He posted an all-time record of 242-47, 10th best in state history. He was inducted into the Maryland football hall of fame more than 20 years before he coached his final game.

He died Friday evening in hospice care in his sleep, his son said. The cause was cancer. He was 76.

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Montgomery Sports, The Gazette

Starting early leads some athletes to burn out

Sherwood coach says early pressure can push students away from their sports

Rising Sherwood senior Kasey Rosen played softball for nearly a decade before giving the sport up in high school.

Rising Sherwood senior Kasey Rosen played softball for nearly a decade before giving the sport up in high school.

Duncan Hawvermale wrestled from ages 5 to 15. He spent his first two years at James H. Blake High School on the Bengals’ squad, competing in the 103- and 112-pound weight classes.

When his junior season rolled around, he chose not to go out for the team. The sheer repetition of day-after-day practices got boring, he said. A lifelong snowboarder, he was barred from hitting the slopes while his team was on the mat.

“I just didn’t want to put the work in anymore. I got tired of it,” Hawvermale said. “I guess I just didn’t love it as much as I used to.”

Hawvermale is among the athletes who, in their latter years of high school or at the beginning of college, discontinued sports they’ve played their whole lives.

With children focusing on a single sport at younger ages, players such as Hawvermale can burn out easier as they move through the ranks.

“I think that there is a ton of pressure out there,” Sherwood High School softball coach Ashley Barber-Strunk wrote in an email. “School (specific classes to take, grades and scores), family pushing them to be the best, and burnout would be among the top reasons students do not go on after college. These kids are playing year-round when they are younger and do it more vigorously as they get older. I think others don’t see a future beyond college and would rather just not have to worry about something they have been doing year-round since they are young.”

Barber-Strunk said, in her experience, maybe one of six softball players will actually pursue softball after high school, either intercollegiately or through intramurals. The emphasis on competition at an early age, she said, turns players off from participating as they get older.

“The emphasis on being the best certainly plays a role,” she said. “I think athletes need to relax more and not stress so much.”

Sherwood rising senior Kasey Rosen played varsity softball her freshman and sophomore years before dropping the sport just before her junior season. She said she played softball for nearly a decade, and after coming off knee surgery a month before the season began, opted to sit the spring out.

“I’d been playing for so long and I kind of just needed a break,” she said. “Some of my friends felt the same way. Some people can keep going and enjoy the sport like when they start, but some people just lose the love of the game.”

After missing spending time with friends and family — her older brother Andrew was poised to leave for college — Rosen said she decided she’d had enough.

“I kind of found a way to get used to it and work my schedule around sports,” she said. “But it just got a little too much. I missed doing stuff with my friends and family. My friends had all this free time and I always wondered what that would be like.”

Both Hawvermale and Rosen said they each miss their respective sports.

Hawvermale said wrestling always reminded him of friendly roughhousing with his older brother as a child.

Rosen said her father gets nostalgic about the game they shared as she grew up.

“I kind of wish I was out there again,” she said. “I miss the atmosphere.”

But Rosen moved on to play volleyball for the Warriors, where she was part of back-to-back-to-back state championships. She said she doesn’t know if she wants to play varsity volleyball in college, but is convinced she wants to at least play club or recreationally.

“It’s so addicting,” she said.

Hawvermale’s old wrestling skills certainly came in handy recently — at about 5 a.m. on June 30 in Jackson, N.J.

Hawvermale, 22, was a bit groggy walking back to his car. In bare feet and basketball shorts, he was set to drive four hours from a friend’s graduation party back to College Park. He needed to be there in time to work the 9 a.m. shift at Bill’s Backyard Barbeque.

That’s when Hawvermale noticed the trunk of his Chevy Malibu was open and a stranger was rifling through his belongings. A second person was sitting in his front seat toying with his GPS.

“The first thing I see is the trunk wide open mysteriously,” Hawvermale said. “The first guy said he was sorry and ran away. The second guy tried to put down my possessions and asked if I could just let him go.”

Hawvermale said that wasn’t going to happen. When the perpetrator tried to run, Hawvermale’s 10 years of wrestling experience kicked in.

As the second intruder tried to flee, Hawvermale used a wrestling move called “leg riding” — when standing above an opponent, a wrestler twists his leg between his foe’s calf and thigh to bring him down. This freed Hawvermale’s hands, so he could calmly reach into his pocket and call police.

He restrained the intruder in that hold until authorities arrived. Hawvermale got to work on time.

“Your moves in wrestling stay with you,” he said.

Montgomery Sports, The Gazette

A new day for Sherwood, a past era for coach

Class of 2000 alumnus leads Warriors’ football team in offseason

“Take control of your program,” Sherwood High School football coach Chris Grier told the 40-some players who showed up for workouts on June 26.

It’s the same message Grier, 30, tells himself. The Sherwood graduate (Class of 2000) is the Warriors’ fifth head coach in six years. DeMatha Catholic’s former freshman team helmsman took the reins in March from Mike Bonavia, who now is a resource teacher at Albert Einstein High. During the conditioning session last week, Grier looked out over the Sandy Spring school’s weight room at his hastily thrown-together coaching staff and offseason training program.

“Sometimes a younger guy who’s hungry and back coaching at their own program is a dangerous combination,” he said. “We’re gonna put the work in. We’re gonna put the hours in. We’re gonna do whatever we have to do to be elite.”

As Sherwood, once one of Montgomery County’s most feared football programs in the 1990s and 2000s, slipped from the ranks of the elite after an undefeated state championship season in 2008, Grier aims to steer the Warriors back to the bygone era of his days as an offensive lineman with then-Sherwood coach and current Our Lady of Good Counsel coach Bob Milloy. During Milloy’s tenure, the Warriors won two state titles (1995-96), went to one more and played in two state semifinals. Grier was part of the program during the 1996 season.

Gone is the “Stormin’” moniker that for years ran in front of the football team’s name. Former coach Al Thomas inserted the nickname as a motivational tool in reference to the U.S. military storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in 1944.

Gone is the team’s old League Lineup website, replaced instead by the crisp and clean-looking Gone is the crusader-like sword from Sherwood’s helmets, swapped out for a suave blue ‘S’ with a cursive “Warriors” script running inside in white.

The young coach’s changes harken back to a period of Sherwood’s unquestioned athletic dominance, to which Grier would like to return.

“I walked into an established program where we still need to do a lot of work to get back to where we were,” he said. “But in the community of Sherwood, the type of athletes we get, the tradition, it shouldn’t be a long road to re-establish what we’re trying to get back to.

“I want to show the kids where this program has been and where we want to go back to.”

Grier played offensive line at West Virginia University his junior and senior seasons after transferring from a junior college. He spent his fifth season at WVU as a student manager on the team. After graduation he went on to coach high school football in Long Island, N.Y., while getting his master’s degree in physical education at Hofstra University.

Once he received his degree, Grier coached the freshman team at DeMatha and eventually worked his way up to varsity offensive line coach while teaching physical education at A. Mario Loiderman Middle School in Silver Spring.

After Grier was hired as Sherwood’s football coach, he and offensive coordinator and math teacher Randy Thompson transferred to Sherwood, where both will teach in the fall. Running backs coach Marquis Bell and junior varsity offensive and defensive line coach Dan Soso also teach at the school as well.

With all that oversight, Grier says Sherwood players haven’t worked this hard in the offseason for years.

“I wasn’t sure how they would take to hard-core discipline, hard-core structure, accountability and things like that,” he said. “But I gotta tell you, from our first meeting, from our first week or two of workouts, all I kept hearing was, ‘kids love it.’ They love having the structure. They were craving that and they’ve really bought in from day one.”

Senior running back Elijah Spottswood agrees. He says previous teams lacked the organization Grier and his staff have brought to Sherwood.

“I like the disciplinarian in him,” senior running back Elijah Spottswood said. “It’s making us better.”

When Grier interviewed March 5 for what he calls his “dream job,” he said he had no trouble finding his way around the building. Aside from a new wing of classrooms and new offices for the athletic director and football coach added in 2008, Sherwood has been left unchanged, stamped in Grier’s mind as Montgomery County’s bastion of football prowess.

“The way I see it,” he said, “Sherwood is still the last Montgomery County team to win a state championship.”