“If I was going to a random school, up against the odds, then I wouldn’t have gotten it,” he said.
In his debut season, Weisbecker led the program to its second winning season since 1995. Now 26, he is still the youngest football head coach in Northern Virginia.
Weisbecker isn’t the only head coach in the area still in his 20s. Drake Woodard, 29, is in his first season at Dominion. And though they once feared their youth could be a negative during job interviews, Weisbecker and Woodard are now trying to find ways to use it as an asset.
“I try to do old things in a new, stylish way,” Woodard said. “Kids are different now. They listen to different music, they have different interests. So you have to relate and show your players that you care about them and make sure that relationship is there. And then you have to toughen them up.”
At Dominion, Woodard is at another local program trying to build a legacy. The Titans have had four winning seasons since the school opened in 2003. Woodard, who coached at Shenandoah University for five years before joining Rock Ridge as the defensive coordinator last season, was hired to replace longtime coach Karl Buckwalter.
He spent a lot of time around high school programs as a college recruiter and said the level of “fear” around football in Loudoun County surprised him. It could be one explanation for the school’s low participation level. The Titans program currently has just 41 varsity players, no junior varsity squad and a freshman team of 18.
The stereotypical, often-glamorized idea of a high school football coach — stoic, inaccessible, feared — no longer jibes with the qualities required to handle the responsibilities facing modern coaches. Today, it helps if coaches can navigate social media — where their players are likely to spend large amounts of their time — and they must be sensitive to the changing nature of a sport in which there’s a growing focus on player safety and mental health.
Weisbecker tries to lead Justice with what landed him the job: familiarity. He said his goal is to connect with his players to the point that football becomes more than an after-school activity for them.
“Our kids might need somebody to say ‘Hey, this is what you need to do to be successful, to be a man, to go to college,’ ” Weisbecker said. “And football is the route that we can get them to buy in and trust us. But where I grew up, and in other places I’ve been, coaches might just be able to roll it out and focus on football.”
Both Weisbecker and Woodard said social media and other technologies make it easier to connect with players but harder for everyone to focus on football. While applications such as GroupMe, Remind, Google Docs, Hudl, Twitter and Facebook are an integral part of getting word out or promoting the team online, they can provide distractions.
“You see guys caring much more about the Instagram post in front of the mirror with the uniform on instead of the stats you had that game,” Woodard said. “But that’s life nowadays.”
For young coaches such as Woodard and Weisbecker, teenagers’ interests are somewhat familiar. What’s new to these coaches is laying down the law. As assistants, a more personal, hands-on approach could do wonders with the players. But in the top job, they feel the need to be more authoritative.
“I’m more of the bad cop now,” Woodard said. “My assistants are the good cops, and I’m the bad cop. It is what it is.”
Both programs have gotten off to a rocky start this season, going 0-2. On Friday night, Justice will travel to Annandale (0-2) and Dominion will host Broad Run (2-0). With each game, the young coaches grow more comfortable and confident in their approach.
“I didn’t have a doubt that I could do it,” Weisbecker said. “But it was a matter of being trusted.”
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