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Free Lance-Star Fall All-Area: Football player of the year




To understand how James Monroe’s Ethan Preston became such a talented running back, you have to travel back in time 10 years, to an Army base in Germany.

Then you have to go to the soccer field.

“I loved soccer because I could just run around as fast as I could until I collapsed,” said Preston, The Free Lance–Star’s football player of the year. “I think it’s a big part of why I’m able to do the things I do.”

Preston’s father, Clarence, was a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army, and he was stationed in Germany for nearly five years when Preston was a child.

There were few children on base—Preston’s class had just seven students—so athletic options were limited.

Basically, it was difficult to field a team in a sport that required a lot of people or equipment.

“There was a lot of soccer, basketball and tennis,” Preston said.

And Preston gravitated toward soccer. The sport taught him to combine lateral movement with quick, sudden bursts.

He had no idea he was actually learning how to become a running back.

Both of Preston’s parents attended James Monroe High School, and when Preston was in ninth grade he enrolled there when his family moved back to Fredericksburg.

“I saw him run,” Yellow Jackets coach Rich Serbay said, “and I was stunned that he’d never played football before.”

Preston joined the Yellow Jackets’ JV team as a freshman, partly so he could make new friends as he adjusted to another new school.

He didn’t know much about the sport, except that if you’re on defense you tackle, and if you have the ball on offense you run as quickly as you can.

It soon became apparent that Preston was quite capable of both of those skills. He was called up to the Yellow Jackets’ varsity team, where he played linebacker and fullback.

“Some of it was tough to learn, like when they’d tell me to run through the four-hole, I’d look at them like, ‘What’s the four-hole?’” Preston said. “But I was able to catch on.”

As a junior, Preston was a standout nose guard for the Yellow Jackets, despite weighing less than 200 pounds. Once again, he leaned on the lateral quickness he had developed as a soccer player.

“Every time I’d have to go heads up with two 300-pound linemen,” Preston said, “and I had to figure out how to get by them.”

Preston also received some work on offense last year, tallying 22 carries for 214 yards and three touchdowns.

He had success, but he figured it was the result of facing the opposing team’s second string. Preston mostly operated as a backup to Mike Latney.

Then Latney graduated, and Serbay told Preston that the ball would be in his hands throughout his senior season.

“I believe everyone has their time, and this was Ethan’s time,” Serbay said. “He has great peripheral vision, and can see the whole field.”

This season, Preston was as unstoppable as his team was.

The senior finished with 219 carries for 1,907 yards and 33 touchdowns. He compiled those numbers despite rarely getting carries after halftime, because JM usually had a comfortable lead in winning its first 13 games. Serbay said Preston could easily have tallied 800 more yards this season if he had played more often.

Preston led the Yellow Jackets to a perfect regular season as well as the Region I, Division 3 championship.

James Monroe defeated Kettle Run in a Group AA semifinal before falling to Brookville, 34–33, in the title game.

Preston, who had been so dominant for so long, struggled in that game. He was held to 86 yards on 23 carries, and he lost two costly fumbles.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “I don’t know what was happening.”

Preston said he should have worn gloves to help him hold on to the ball better, but he said he still should not have fumbled.

“I felt bad for him because he really wanted to be successful,” Serbay said. “But he didn’t point any fingers. He just did the best he could.”

Serbay said a few unfortunate plays should not diminish the magnitude of Preston’s spectacular season.

Preston said he plans to play college football in the fall, and he is considering Maryland, Ferrum, North Carolina Central, VMI and Christopher Newport, among other schools.

“I just want to get faster than I am now,” Preston said. “I just need to keep working.”

Adam Himmelsbach: 540/374-5442

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