Gino Simone always looked forward to the summer football camps of his youth. That was the time of the year when he could mingle with and learn from the players who were a few grades ahead of him.
Now that Simone is a senior at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash., he takes seriously the perception of the program that has been around since 1997. He wants to continue winning, of course, but he also wants to make the positive impact he received when he was growing up in the Skyline system.
To Simone, a senior wide receiver, Skyline isn't only about the varsity team that plays Friday nights and competes for state titles. It's about everybody else – the fans who cheer for the Spartans and the younger kids who attend football camp to learn the game from their high school heroes.
"The cool thing about the camp is that you get the high school players and they're the coaches," Simone said. "We have little flag football teams, and it's not only about getting coached by the high school players but getting to know the guys you're going to be watching on Friday nights. Those guys are like gods. I was in awe when I was a kid. That's how big of an impact people can have on somebody."
Simone now is on the other side of the hero worship. Younger players hold him in high regard. When Simone is making touchdown catches for the Spartans, they can brag to each other that they know him personally.
"It's really surreal," Simone said. "You know how those kids see it and you remember how you felt about those guys. It's a really special time for our program. It's not only a chance to help the younger kids become better players, but it's a chance to give back."
He's certainly right about one thing – it's a special time to be part of the Skyline program, who is ranked No. 31 in the RivalsHigh 100. In the Class 3A title game last year, the Spartans found themselves losing 28-7 to Seattle O'Dea in the third quarter. But behind solid play from quarterback Jake Heaps, Simone and Eric Biege – who, as a senior, made way for Heaps at quarterback and then became a force at linebacker – they ended up with a 42-35 victory.
That team, though, is in the past, Simone said.
"For me, that team that was the state championship team – that team belongs to the seniors of last year and not us," Simone said. "You go and win a state championship and you can't not do the same thing the next year. We all know the feeling of what it was like that night. I'd love to have it back."
The Spartans will have to earn it back with a new coach.
After the season, Steve Gervais – who had been the coach since the school came into existence – took a job with the University of Washington as the running backs coach. Longtime assistant Mat Taylor took over the reins at Skyline, and it's not an easy task to replace a coach who's a member of the state high school hall of fame. The job is more difficult considering Skyline seems to make the playoffs every year. The Spartans have won three state titles since 2000 and have finished second, third and fifth in other seasons.
"It's been fairly smooth," Taylor said about the transition. "Offensively, he and I worked really closely. The pressure is hot right now. We've been in the playoffs every year except for 2003, and I want the pressure to be on me, not the kids. We have some high-profile kids, and I want them to be kids and have fun with their teammates. There's going to be a lot of pressure from the media, the parents, the community. I want to be the guy that takes it on."
That'll be tough considering Simone, Heaps and even sophomore wide receiver Kasen Williams are receiving interest on the recruiting trail. Simone is a top-100 receiver in the class of 2008 and has been offered by Washington, Washington State and Oregon State. Heaps, a junior, is drawing interest from Pac-10 programs, and Williams – a sophomore – already holds offers from UCLA, Washington and Boise State.
"Jake is very poised," Taylor said. "As a sophomore, he was a huge part of our state championship and going 14-0. He doesn't force things, like a young quarterback would do. He throws as good a ball as anybody we've ever had here. He's unbelievable.
"Gino's numbers speak for themselves. He just moves really, really well. He's not the fastest guy on the field, but he plays the fastest. He's got a second gear when the ball is in the air. (Williams) is just incredibly talented. He had 150 yards as a freshman in our state championship game. He had two of the most high-pressured catches you could have, and he's still raw. He's 15 years old. He's still learning the position. He's still learning how to play every day."
But Simone knows if Skyline is to earn its fourth state title, the responsibility can't only fall on the high-profile trio. He knows every Spartan has to contribute.
"It isn't about what Jake Heaps is going to do or what Kasen is going to do or what Gino Simone is going to do," Simone said. "It's about what Skyline is going to do.
"You can't win a game with three players. It's not about whatever team we're playing or the hype around the team. It's about what we're all going to go out and do."