Winning is contagious at Courtland High. Since 1981, the school is 79-7-2, including 9-1 this season. During this stretch, the school dominated the Battlefield District and won three AA state championships and has now won consecutive AAA Commonwealth District championships.
Last season, Courtland's increased student enrollment caused the school to move up to the Commonwealth District. In its first year at the AAA level courtland advanced as far as the region semifinals despite often playing against much larger schools.
"You can have 8 million people in your school," said Cougars' guard Bill Pearman, who is 5-foot-10, 195 pounds. "But it only matters what kind of people you put on the field."
This season, four of Courtland's leading players, linebacker/running back Tim Canada, lineman Todd Cook, defensive back Dewey Jackson and running back Brian Culley were lost to injury. However, the rest of the Cougars picked themselves up and have lost just one game, 16-14 to Fauquier two weeks ago. Cook, Jackson and Cully could all return for the first round of the playoffs, but Canada's broken leg will sideline him for the remainder of the season.
On a night the Cougars were to clinch the Commonwealth District crown and with the injured players watching from the sidelines, Fauquier took a 9-0 halftime lead and held on for the win despite two touchdowns by Rondell Banks. With Canada out of the lineup, the Falcons were able to consistently pick up yardage on inside running plays. But with the loss out of their system, the Courgars came back last week to trounce James Wood 38-15, with 477 yards rushing. After an extra week's wait, Courtland claimed its second straight Commonwealth title.
What makes courtland's football team so great? You can say it was something in the local drinking water or point to bigger faster players than most schools. Neither figure, Clearly, Courtland's success comes from Coach Ken Brown and his long-time assistants, Paul Neal, Rick Holcomb, and Tim Coleman.
In 1980, when Courtland high first opened, Brown and his assistants moved to the team from nearby Spotsylvania High, where the staff won six district championships. Courtland is located five miles west of Fredericksburg in Spotsylvania County.
"We saw Courtland as a chance to build a totally new program," said Brown. "To establish a new tradition. I had a chance to take my assistants. I lived here and didn't even have to move. So, I jumped on the opportunity."
And what a tradition Brown and his staff have established. Wearing the Cougar uniform at Courtland is a privilege. Competition at tryouts and practice is often more intense than in league games. In all, 134 young men tried out for the team this year.
The Courtland community gets behind their football heroes. More than 8,000 fans pack into the stands for each home game. The sidelines are full of members of former championship teams. They cheer on the players who have taken their places. When the Cougars take to the road, 2,000 locals follow. It is an excitable, vocal crowd, famous for aiming its unnerving chant of "RAW MEAT!" at opposing teams.
The 49-year-old Brown resembles Joe Gibbs. He's a friendly man with a quick smile. There is a sense that he truly cares for the young men he coaches. Brown played for his father in high school. Brown's son, Keith, was his quarterback when Ken coached at Spotsylvania. "I enjoyed playing for my father and coaching my son," Brown said. "We've all learned a lot. Now I consider them my closest friends."
Players genuinely like Brown and his assistants. They aren't afraid to talk to them about their problems. Before a recent practice, player after player approached the coaches and showed them their report cards. Coaches kidded those who make good grades about getting preferential treatment. Players with poor marks were taken aside and asked if they needed any help or were trying their best.
"Mr. Brown is easy to get along with. He isn't like a drill sergeant," said running back Stephan Banks. "He listens to your ideas too. All the coaches treat us well. They don't act like they are over you. They'll go out and show you pass patterns and catch the ball."
Courtland's practice schedule is no more demanding than any other high school. Players lift weights and run as a team in the off-season. In late summer they endure two-a-day practices. During the season, the team practices Monday through Thursday, with games on Friday.
"There's a lot of things in life that are more important than football," said Brown. "I want my players to hunt and fish and do other things they like during football season."
What sets Courtland apart is the coaching staff's preparation and selling of the program. Every student who is part of the team, from all-American, to manager, is respected, and taught he is a winner.
"Yelling and screaming isn't our way," said Brown. "The coaching staff is kind of laid back. Don't get me wrong though, we're loose, but we are aggressive. We're well prepared."
"It's just you and the guy across from you on the line," said Pearman. "You know you're going to beat him because you prepared for him. There's no excuse not to beat him. If you do the job you prepared to do all week, eventually you'll come out ahead."
Jim Powell, coach at Stonewall Jackson High, a Commonwealth opponent, said "They're so successful at Courtland because the coaching staff is so thorough. It's easy to get your team fired-up to play them. Who doesn't want to beat one of the best teams in the state? This year, they gave us an old fashioned whupping. We lost, 49-0, but they probably could have scored 80, 90 points."
Bill Holsclaw, coach at Woodbridge said: "Yeah, Courtland can be beat, but you would have to play perfect ball and they would have to make a great many mistakes."
One of the more curious things about Courtland's program, is that only one player, Jason Wilson of Virginia Tech, has gone to play major college football. Perhaps it's proof that if football is taught as a team game, the parts just aren't as crucial as the whole. But from this year's team, the Cougars' figure to have Canada, Cook, defensive back Stephan Banks and linebacker Alan Heddings eventually playing Division I football.
"The number one thing we do here is have fun," says defensive coach Rick Holcomb. "I like to challenge the players, to get them to play over their heads. I have guys playing for me who are 180 pounds but can put up twice their weight in the weight room. They are dedicated and hard working."
Brown claims that every win is special to him, especially since he knows what it is like to lose. His team at Newport News Apprentice College in 1964 was 0-8. "I still have lots of friends from those teams," he says. "You learn a lot from losing. A lot of things can go wrong, but you just hang in there, you can be better for it."
In any facet of life, success breeds more success. Courtland wins so many games by large margins that younger kids and back-ups see substantial playing time. Since the team is in the playoffs frequently, practice continues well into November. Players gain more experience. Coaches have the opportunity to teach more. When a star graduates, an upperclassman moves right in to take his place.
Six-foot-3, 195-pound guard Charles Chalfant, said, "We have no doubt that we are going to win. Last year, we were down 7-0 late in the game against Gar-Field, but we knew we were going to win. We pounded at them until we finally scored.
"There was no way we wanted to see the coaches send in the kicker for the point after. We wanted to go for two -- we wanted to win and we did both." The Cougars recorded an 8-7 victory.
Pearman has been a starter since 10th grade. "You get a feeling in your head, 'we're Courtland, we can't be beat,' " says Pearman.
Wide receiver Clarence Washington said, "We go into a game expecting to win -- other teams go in just hoping to win."
Because of key injuries to the team Courtland is considered a long-shot in the playoffs but don't be surprised if the Cougars make it to the state finals. For years the team has won games in the last seconds or defeated teams they weren't supposed to beat. Some claim that the team is as lucky as it is good. But Courtland has made its own breaks and has capitalized on them.