Grafton coach Jared Van Aker

Grafton coach Jared Van Aker watches his players Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010, during practice at in York County. This was the second day of practice. (Diane Mathews, Daily Press / August 2, 2010)

YORK – There's something undeniably upbeat about the football practices Jared Van Acker orchestrates as new head coach at Grafton High.

As the Clippers stretched prior to one, Van Acker walked up and down the six rows fist-bumping each of the 80 or so players. Then he urged them to have "two-and-a-half hours of fun."

They did, as Van Acker managed to make the brutal practice-ending conditioning drills more pleasant by playing a CD featuring the pulsating drums and guitar of Metallica's "Enter Sandman." Heck, Van Acker sounded half-apologetic as he told the Clippers the running was necessary because it would make them better football players.

What Van Acker probably regretted most was that practice was ending at all.

Only 29, Van Acker already is in his fourth season as a head coach in Virginia, but he'll tell you it's a role he's prepared for his entire life.

"Basically, I've had a football in my hand since I was born," said Van Acker, who spent the previous three seasons as coach at Group A Galax in southwestern Virginia. "Everywhere I went as a kid, I had a football in my hand, and people used to kid me about it. Linus had his blanket. I was LInus with a football.

"But look where I am now, teaching young kids. I always thought it was my destiny to be a football coach."

Van Acker grew up Geneseo, a small town in western Illinois near the Iowa border. It's the kind of place where Victorian houses line the streets, and where everything shuts down as 7,000 pack the high school stadium to watch the Green Machine play on Friday nights.

Van Acker grew up watching his two older brothers play football for the Green Machine, losing three state championship games between them. His dream was to win the state title they never did.

As a star middle linebacker on the 1999 team he came close, but Geneseo fell 37-34 to Chatham Glenwood on field goal in the second overtime of the 4A state semifinal. He still can almost describe the game play-by-play, including his interception return for a touchdown, the 15 solo tackles and three pass deflections.

But it's the play he didn't make that haunts him.

"On that field goal in the second overtime, I probably jumped the highest I've ever jumped in my life," he said. "I swear the ball went through my fingers, and I replay that in my mind every day.

"I tell the kids now, 'The memories you make playing high school football are going to last a lifetime. The friends you make are going to be your friends for life.' "

Van Acker earned a football scholarship to Division II Quincy University in Illinois, but a knee injury sustained as a freshman limited his playing time. He says the best thing about the experience, although it didn't seem so at the time, is that he played under two head coaches, three defensive coordinators and three linebackers coaches.

"I played 4-3, 4-4 and 3-4 defenses in different seasons," he said. "Looking back, that helped me as a high school coach because I could give all these different looks as defensive coordinator."

Following college, and a brief assistant-coaching stint at a high school in Illinois, Van Acker landed a job as defensive coordinator at William Campbell, a Group A school near Lynchburg.

Van Acker's experiences at Quincy proved useful at William Campbell as his defense shut out J.I. Burton 18-0 to win the 2005 Division 1 state title. While at William Campbell, Van Acker, whose high school team ran the Wing-T, learned the spread offense from Coach Brad Bradley.

He brought the spread with him to Galax, where the rebuilding program went 11-19 in his three seasons. He will use it, along with some Wing-T, at Grafton. Quarterback Joe Cibrin and wide receiver Dylan Stallings, the Clippers' stars, can't wait to run the spread.

"We did amazingly well in the 7-on-7 games, and Coach Van Acker had been with us just two weeks," Stallings said.

Said Cibrin said: "The offense is more creative, and I think we'll score a lot more points this year."

Van Acker will bring some of the small-town traditions that he acquired in Geneseo to Grafton, like the victory bell the players will touch before each game and ring after each victory. State championships are still Van Acker's goal, but the Clippers are young and his first objective is to improve on last season's 4-6 mark.

Beyond that, he wants the players to have fun and to know that he'll help them all he can on and off the field. Stallings, a potential Division I prospect, says Van Acker began doing the latter immediately.

"He knows a lot of college coaches, and he began sending them videos of me the second week he was here," Stallings said. "I thank him for that on a regular basis.

"I was surprised he began helping me so quickly. I know now that if I give my all for him he'll do the same for me."