It was not so much a first impression as a first dent. Newly hired Stonewall Jackson football coach Loren Johnson charged in for his initial meeting with the Raiders in spring 2003 and started to lay out a litany of expectations before the door had closed behind him.
"He busted into the room," senior lineman Ryan Nokes recalled Monday before practice, rolling his head back and chuckling at the memory. "All of us were all scattered about the room, really staying away from people we didn't like, people we usually don't talk to. He made us immediately get up to the front."
"The very first thing he does is he storms in and he just takes control of the room immediately and you just had that feeling about him, like that natural leader," senior lineman Joe Mullinax said. "And you knew that also the fact that he was 25 you could identify with him more. Knowing that he was there, and that he's been to where we want to be, that's a way that we automatically knew that he would be a great leader."
In his second year as coach, Johnson, a former All-Big East defensive back at Virginia Tech, has Stonewall in the Virginia AAA Northwestern Region playoffs for the first time since 1996. The Raiders, the second seed in Division 6, will host George Washington-Danville at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow.
Stonewall's is one of two major turnarounds in Prince William County football this season. Fourth-year Woodbridge coach Keith King has the Vikings in the playoffs for the first time since 1997. His story differs from Johnson's.
King was an accomplished head coach at Potomac who chose to leave an 11-1 team that had snapped Hylton's 39-game winning streak and was set to return a dozen all-district contributors. He took over a formerly successful Woodbridge program that had gone 10-20 the previous three seasons amid dwindling participation. In 2000, the Vikings were outscored 350-59, including a combined 58-0 in two games against King's last Potomac squad.
Whereas the Raiders immediately placed their faith in Johnson, King wanted his Vikings to take a different approach. King had to convince them that his arrival could only enhance what they themselves would accomplish. He could not do it for them.
"Some of the older kids . . . thought just because we were successful at Potomac that all we had to do was step over here as coaches and we'd be successful," said King, whose team will play at top-seeded Hylton at 1 p.m. Saturday in the other Division 6 semifinal. "The big thing we tried to tell them is, it's not us. We don't play. It's you. You have to do what you're coached to do to be successful. No coach is winning a game."
"Things have to change -- if there was no change, there would never be butterflies," Johnson said in March 2003 upon being named coach at Stonewall, where the football team had gone 0-10 the previous season and had won 14 games in five years after going 47-20 the six years before.
After Johnson got the job, but before he had moved up from Roanoke, he and two assistants would make the three-hour drive Saturday mornings to oversee conditioning workouts at the school. Many players were gassed partway though the sessions.
"When I got here, I figured out what I thought was the problem wasn't the problem," Johnson said. "To be absolutely honest, when I got here I thought it was going to be a mess. My personal thought was, 'How does a team go 0-10?' When I looked at it film-wise I saw it and just said, okay, it's not a bad team. There is some talent, some kids running around, some big bodies out on the field. What else could be the problem?
"It's just being disciplined and caring about what you're doing. Not just running out there to put a uniform on just to put a uniform on. It's making the uniform honorable, making it worth something, making people respect you when you put the uniform on."
After they caught their breath at those workouts, the Raiders really began to feel that change was afoot.
"We had never been pushed that hard," said Mullinax, who this past summer won the team's "Ironman" competition. "Once we started feeling ourselves getting better and feeling ourselves becoming more athletic, all that work that we were doing, we knew that it was worth something. . . . Once you see results start to happen, you like to keep pushing and pushing and see how far you can take it."
The Raiders went 2-8 last year and lost four games to playoff teams by a respectable margin of 11.3 points per game. Fifteen starters returned from that group this fall, including the offensive line, 1,300-yard rusher Chris Garrett and quarterback Ricky Milbourne. Talented freshman backs entered the program, too.
The Raiders have fashioned an 8-2 record, with a Week 1 loss to Hylton and a split with Division 5 playoff team Potomac. A 39-32 win on the Panthers' muddy home field Friday gave Cedar Run champion Stonewall its first outright district title since 1984.
Two seasons ago, this was a program that got outscored 225-46 and swept by Osbourn, whose only two wins that season were against the Raiders, the first snapping a 32-game losing streak. Even last season, there were boos at a Stonewall football pep rally.
"Last year they were asking you how bad you're going to lose," senior defensive back Josh Baird said. "This year they ask you how much you're going to win by. . . . [Johnson] gave us a change in attitude. He gave us a winning perspective on everything. We just know we can win now."
As Baird says this in a hallway outside the locker room Monday afternoon, Johnson can be heard in the background, making sure players realize that practice starts in five minutes and that time is wasting.
Out on the practice field, Nokes is talking about rules Johnson laid down and, remembering one of them, spits out a wad of baby-blue bubble gum before the coach can see him chomping.
"The entire attitude of the whole squad has changed drastically," senior lineman Andrew Fisher said. "You go from an 0-10 season where no one really cares too much about whether we win or lose to a real fundamental belief that everyone is going to do well and once you work hard you can accomplish your goals. That's the biggest change."
Got to Believe
When King took over at Woodbridge, there were only about 75 players spread throughout the freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams, quite a small number for one of the largest schools in the state.
He inherited a varsity roster dotted with freshmen and sophomores. That indicated to him a line of tumbled dominoes: Too many young players on varsity unprepared for that level of play and, because of that, depleted sub-varsity programs that struggled.
"What that's doing is teaching those kids that, man, we're not going to win," King said. "Kids don't understand you're a ninth-grader playing varsity; they understand winning and losing. Our thing was to keep those freshmen together and learn to win."
King said the freshman team lost one game his first season and one last year and went undefeated his second year and this season. The junior varsity has lost one game in two years.
"All three levels are successful," he said. "Those kids don't expect to lose, they expect to win. When you're used to losing all the time, the attitude is why work at it? We're going to lose anyway."
Now it's more of a motto of: If you can beat them as freshmen, you can beat them as seniors.
"Everybody but me and [senior Derrick Holt] have been together since their ninth-grade year," said senior linebacker Ron Simon, who attended school in Georgia as a freshman. "It just made us bond together more. . . . That's what I think has made us good is our relationships have gotten stronger. We trust one another. If we turn our back, we trust our teammate to make that block for us."
"Coach King put [players] on the freshman team because he knew our senior year, talent-wise, our skill level would be higher than everyone else's," said senior receiver Tommy Carter, who attended Potomac his first two years. "I think it really is why we play together as a team. It shows."
When King first met with his Vikings, he evoked the name of ex-Woodbridge great Russell Davis and the program's line of successful teams. Woodbridge had reached the playoffs eight times in nine years before the 10-20 stretch of 1998-2000; King's first three teams also went 10-20. The Vikings are now 7-3, including a split against Hylton.
"I think the kids believed in the coaching staff, but I think they still had a problem believing in themselves," King said of his first seasons at Woodbridge. "Now I think they believe in both."