Woodgrove, Tuscarora readying for football debuts
Loudoun's two new schools - Tuscarora and Woodgrove - are not wasting any time getting settled this fall as both the Huskies and Wolverines gear up for full varsity schedules despite inexperienced rosters.
Riley Johnson sprinted down the field, grimacing as he lugged a giant blue blocker pad with him. "Come on," his teammates yelled as he reached the end of his relay leg and chucked the pad into the chest of another runner.
Intensely competitive end-of-practice relay races are just one of the many tools Jerry Gordon is using to build camaraderie and community among the members of his inaugural Woodgrove Wolverines varsity football team. With gleaming new facilities nestled into the quiet outskirts of Purcellville, the first-year coach has an ideal backdrop on which to build his program. But with a collection of inexperienced sophomores and juniors preparing to dive into a full varsity schedule next Friday night, there's much work to be done.
"We do not look like a first-year football team," said Gordon, who is leading a program for the first time. "It feels like we've been out here for a long time and we're expecting great things."
Not a single member of Gordon's team has ever played a down of football at the varsity level. So not only are the players learning a new triple-option offense and 4-3 under defense, they're also learning the rigors of preparing for a new level of Friday night competition. But so far, so good, says Gordon, who has stressed the importance of community building on and off the field. At the end of each practice, Gordon leads his players in reciting their aim to be "champions in the classroom, champions in the hallways, champions in the community and champions on the field."
And individuals are already making their marks as players compete for starting spots in the Wolverines' season opener against fellow new school Tuscarora. Sophomore running back Atem Ntantang will be a key factor for the offense while Johnson, a junior left tackle and defensive tackle, will be expected to help anchor both sides and step into a leadership role on a team devoid of seniors.
"We want to try to win as many games as we can, but we also know we're building a foundation for the years to come," Johnson said. "We want to make this the best year possible."
Thirteen miles east in Leesburg, Tuscarora sweated its way through a late afternoon practice inside its new stadium, focused on its fast-approaching season opener at home against Woodgrove. And while the Huskies have faced many of the same challenges as their neighboring new school in the seven months since head coach Mike Burnett announced he would leave Broad Run for Tuscarora, they were handed a tremendous head start.
Three of the assistant coaches who helped transform the Spartans from a 1-9 program into a two-time state champion made the move with Burnett, establishing continuity and allowing the head coach to focus on the players from day one without having to build his coaching staff first. Defensive coordinator Adam Fortune, running backs coach B.J. Miles and strength and conditioning and wide receivers coach Brian Fletcher give the Huskies an experienced group of leaders Burnett believes can construct their new program in the same way they built up Broad Run.
"I wouldn't have done it - there's no way I would have come over here without these guys," Burnett said. "It's a challenge enough to start a new program and work with kids that haven't played before and haven't been in your system, but to do that alone is an even greater challenge. To have these guys who already understand what we're trying to accomplish as a program makes it so much easier and more manageable."
Even with his coaches on board, Burnett is realistic in his expectations for year one. Like Woodgrove, the Huskies' roster is devoid of seniors and only a handful of players have seen varsity action. But with a full varsity schedule on the slate, Burnett has seen enough potential to expect Tuscarora to be competitive in every game they play and keep the result undecided until the final quarter.
Junior quarterback Edwin Mends is one of the few Huskies who has seen snaps at the varsity level. Pressed into service as a freshman at Briar Woods, he went 2-2 as a starter and led the Falcons to a 61-point outburst against Freedom with four touchdown passes. After a year at Flint Hill, Mends is poised to lead an offense that will also feature junior running back Cameron Molina and junior receiver Alden Carpenter. Junior middle linebacker and fullback Chris Holoman will lead the defense on a team that took the field for the first time together last weekend in a scrimmage at Handley.
"We've already gone through a lot of hardship in the sense that we had no facilities, no equipment and no idea of who we had," Burnett said. "So it's really hard to build the kind of things that we're trying to build in kids when you don't have those things. The last few weeks that we've been here and the kids actually put on that Tuscarora jersey, that finally made it real."