SMITHFIELD — Ja Quan Sprately remembers looking up in the stands at Smithfield High home football games in 2011, happy that any students showed up.
"When we were 1-9, everybody was all, 'The football team, forget them,'" Spratley said.
A week ago, Spratley, the center, looked up after snapping to quarterback Matt McClary for the game-ending kneel-down of the Packers' 34-27 win over Lafayette and saw an entirely different scene. Hundreds of his fellow students stormed the field after an upset victory that improved the Packers to 4-0 for the season.
"It was kind of scary to be honest," Spratley said. "I didn't know what was going on, and I saw them break through and was like, 'Oh my God!'
"It was a great feeling to have that much support."
Defensive end Shatwon Johnson, who led the defense with 11 tackles, said, "It brought a tear to my eye to be honest. We couldn't even get off the field.
"We had to walk in a single file line just to get between all the people. I've never seen anything like it."
Nor has Clark Harrell, the new Smithfield coach engineering the turnaround that leads the Packers (4-0) into a home showdown on Friday for first place in the Bay Rivers District against defending champion York (4-0).
"I've been coaching 29 years, and that's the first time I've seen students run on the field after a game," he said. "I have seen that when a program turns around, it sets the tone for the whole school."
Needless to say, the tone at Smithfield is very happy.
"Everybody is walking around school with a smile on their face, looking forward to the (York) game," Johnson said.
Smithfield junior Joseph Lancaster, the school's "Blue Man" — the guy at the game covered in Blue from head to toe, similar to someone from the Blue Man Group — agrees.
"Success on the field has made for a better environment off the field," said Lancaster, who leads chants from the sideline during games. "It's given all the students a commonality, something we can all talk about."
While Harrell and the players deserve much of the credit for the change in atmosphere, new principal Stennette Byrd III deserves a huge assist. Traditionally, many Smithfield students hang together near the concession stand during games, paying little attention to the action on the field.
During the Lafayette game, Byrd — who, as a high school defensive back at Kecoughtan in the early 1990s, chased Allen Iverson and Aaron Brooks around the field — encouraged those students to move together to the stands to cheer the Packers. After reluctantly doing so, something extraordinary happened.
"When they got in the stands and watched our football team come back (from 27-12 behind late in the third quarter), a real student section emerged," Byrd said. "They went crazy at first downs and touchdowns, and enjoyed watching the game.
"It's all everybody has talked about around here all week."
As the Packers neared victory, those students moved to an area behind a goal post, and, while there, asked Byrd if they could run onto the field to greet the players at the final whistle. In that moment, Byrd made a decision that will endear him to the student body for a long time.
"I could see in their eyes that it meant the world to them," Byrd said. "So, I weighed the pros and cons, and told them to stay away from the other team.
"Then I went ahead and let them go."
Blue Man led the way and, within seconds, the players hoisted him onto their shoulders as if he, not Marquis Childress or Kyon Croker, had scored the winning touchdowns. The students quickly seized the moment and asked Byrd if they could hold a pep rally for the York game: unheard of at Smithfield other than for homecoming.
"I told them if they continued to show positive behavior, and be kind, respectful and helpful to each other, then we'd take down the old barriers," Byrd said. "There hasn't been a single fist fight in the school the entire year."
So, the competition is underway. Juniors will wear blue and seniors white at Friday's pep rally.
"It's all about how loud you are," Blue Man Lancaster said. "And the seniors can really turn it up."
Junior Hayley Hall countered, "We're going to beat you guys, Joseph. The juniors have a lot of spirit."
It seems everyone in Smithfield has a lot of spirit for this rejuvenated Packers.
"It was surprising that we came back against Lafayette, but then to see how we lit up this city was really surprising," Johnson said. "To see all the people after the game hanging out at the gas stations and at McDonalds, all talking Smithfield football, was just amazing."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times