By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 12:06 AM
Natalie Randolph watched slumped shoulders and hung heads trudge off the field and had to think quickly. The first female high school football coach in the Washington area just saw her Coolidge team lose its fifth straight game to start the season - in devastating fashion, as Forestville High won, 22-19, on a touchdown with just 30 seconds left.
As Randolph followed her players into the locker room, she considered her postgame speech for a bunch of heartbroken teenage boys. The winning touchdown came at the end of a 99-yard drive. The Colts needed consolation and a lift.
But when she walked into a dead-silent room and saw some players with tears in their eyes, the soft-spoken Randolph knew immediately what to say.
"This is not okay!" Randolph yelled. "It's not okay that we lost. We played down to their level."
Heads lifted. Eyes widened. She tore into her team for 45 minutes - an open-field shot to their collective solar plexus.
"I didn't expect it, but I understood it," junior quarterback Femi Bamiro said. "That was the way to get through to us.
"And it worked, right?"
After that loss, Coolidge rebounded to win its next four games. Although the Colts lost their regular-season finale last week at Dunbar, they still qualified for the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association football playoffs with a 4-6 record. Coolidge will meet two-time defending champion H.D. Woodson (7-3) Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at Cardozo. A victory would put the Colts in the DCIAA title game, known as the Turkey Bowl, on Thanksgiving morning.
While Randolph, 30, is quick to note that her team's level of competition dropped significantly after the first five games, she acknowledges that perhaps her biggest coaching challenge was keeping her players motivated and confident in the face of a winless record at midseason.
With no prior head-coaching experience to draw upon, Randolph, a science teacher, has often rummaged through many of her classroom tactics to reach her players on the field.
"My reaction is going to influence their decision," Randolph said of how she approached each critical moment this season, whether it was during a game, practice or even casual conversation. "I've been teaching for long enough that I understand how to control myself. I don't have time to flip out over something that's over, that's from last week."
She knew that when the Colts were 0-5, she had to face her players and the public with the same cool confidence she displayed before a throng of reporters and cameras on March 12, when she was introduced as Coolidge's coach. She could ill afford to worry about outside perception of her, her coaching and her players.
"That's natural," she said, "but if I pay attention to it, then it becomes a problem. It's like when babies fall and look at their parents on how to react. They start flipping out if Mom starts flipping out. If I flip out after we lose, then [my players] will start flipping out and that's the last thing they need to be doing."
She could have easily flipped out last Friday when Coolidge lost to Dunbar, 38-6. The Crimson Tide, with a huge lead in the closing minutes, was throwing downfield passes, looking to keep scoring. Randolph declined to comment on how that game ended, but several players said that was the most blatant example of an opponent trying to embarrass the Colts.
Said junior linebacker Chuck Gaines: "Someone had to be the bigger person, and it was her."
The challenges of the season started long before football practice. Randolph was overwhelmed by the amount of national media attention she received, the number of media and speaking requests, and the breadth and quantity of responsibilities thrust upon her. She teaches five classes at Coolidge, coordinates her team's study hall and manages practices, the team budget and equipment. Then, there's game planning.
"I'm walking the halls when I'm not teaching," she said. "If I see that they're all over the place during the day, then they'll be all over the place at practice. You have to manage kids."
After Coolidge captured its first victory, 48-12, over Anacostia on Oct. 1, Randolph could not hide her relief.
"You could see a lot of stress relieved off of her shoulders," Bamiro said. "She's got teaching, she's got to deal with supplies. She's got to game-plan every week. That's a lot to deal with. "
Randolph received many offers of help, from football coaches both local and distant, from fans, and even people she had never met. She admitted, though, that she was too busy to take up anyone on those overtures.
She lifted up a stack of mail from underneath her computer screen on her desk. There are letters from such places as Portsmouth, Va.; Mansfield, Ohio; New York; Bloomfield, Mich.; and Los Angeles, and about half a dozen from prison inmates across the country. One letter simply stated: "Thanks and congratulations. You really gave me a lift." She's received books about coaching motivation.
"It definitely keeps your spirits up," Randolph said about the letters.
Her team's youth makes for some tough lessons, and the biggest one came after that Forestville loss - both for Randolph and her players.
"I was sitting at my locker, thinking, 'What's she going to say?' " said sophomore Hassan Jenkins.
After Randolph "tore into them," as she put it, a few players began offering retorts to explain the mistakes she highlighted.
"She just said, 'Shut up. Don't you blame this one or that one,' " Jenkins said. "I've never seen anything like that. She just tore all her anger into us. That's when I knew that we let her down."
She has rallied her players to this point. They know the opportunity before them.
"If you define this season, that's what you see: perseverance," Bamiro said. "She never quit on us and we never quit on her. We now have a chance to do something special."