The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At Independence, big-time resources beget a new football power

Max Randolph listens to his coach during an Independence football practice in August in Ashburn. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

Ignore the age of its players, and there’s little about the Independence football team that feels amateur. That was a surprise for Julien and Max Randolph when their family moved across Loudoun County last winter, dropping them at the new school in the middle of the year.

In December, the brothers began participating in 6 a.m. practices with some new teammates. They braved single-digit temperatures and arrived to see that Will Montgomery and Logan Paulsen, former NFL players who have taken on assistant coaching roles since retirement, had beaten them to the field. Later, they walked across the 84-acre campus and visited former Washington head athletic trainer Larry Hess, whose office at the school houses compression boots and therapeutic ice baths.

And when they lined up for each new drill, they found that their teammates — some of whom have physiques that would fit in at the Commanders’ training camp across town — seemingly always knew what to do.

“We have guys that, when they get the ball, they’re going to score; when you need a block, they’re going to block; when you need a tackle, they’re going to tackle,” Max Randolph said. “We have guys who are athletes.”

In America’s wealthiest county, it has become commonplace for a new high school to pop up and find prosperity on the football field. Even in that environment, Independence’s early returns since its founding in 2019 — a region title in the spring of 2021 and a 7-0 start that fall — stand out. Though the Tigers slumped down the stretch last year, they entered this season with state title aspirations and won their opener, 44-7, at Fauquier last week.

Independence, with major resources and a plan to make the most of them, is an example of how a program can succeed so quickly.

As Loudoun County’s population skyrocketed in the early 2000s thanks to commercial and residential development and the pull of the Dulles Technology Corridor, so did the county’s desire to build new schools for the incoming residents. Twelve of the county’s 17 public school football teams kicked off their first seasons this millennium, including five last decade. Three of those five amassed a winning record and a playoff appearance by their fourth year.

Loudoun County is filled with youth football leagues and travel teams, so young athletes get ample training early in life. They are often well prepared — physically and fundamentally — by the time they reach high school. Then the Tigers’ program tries to prepare them for the next step: college football. Independence regularly brings large groups of players on visits to local colleges, and it has already sent nine athletes to play Division I football.

“Obviously, I want to win football games,” Coach RJ Windows said. “But I really want to get kids to the next level. I don’t care if it’s Division I, II or III — I want to do my part to get them there.”

Julien Randolph thinks back to his initial months in Ashburn, when his teacher first called him out of class. At the time, he didn’t understand how common an occurrence that would become. Repeatedly, a college football coach stood on the other side of the door, even though the Randolphs had no new film to share. Plenty about the school, from its size to the touch screens in its classrooms, wowed the brothers, but those meetings stuck with them.

Max, a junior, now wears a slew of university wristbands up and down his forearms as he prepares for a year of college visits; Julien, a senior, wears one band, with a North Carolina insignia, after he committed to the Tar Heels in June.

“I mean, when I was at Loudoun Valley, I had zero offers, pretty much zero interest,” Julien said. “Then, as soon as I get to Independence, Coach Windows is sending my film to all these coaches, I’m getting all these phone calls, my Twitter’s blowing up.”

Windows sees relationship-building as the blueprint for any successful team, a philosophy established during his time as a coordinator at Chantilly and Stone Bridge. But creating a culture took time. In 2019, its first season, Independence won two games.

Junior running back Clay Ash was on the team that season as an eighth-grader, and he said few players on that squad were “fully bought in.” The 2020 season was squashed because of the pandemic, but the Tigers remained close before their abbreviated season in the spring of 2021, training together — some even hiking together in Utah. That spring, they advanced to the Class 3 state semifinals.

During the past two summers, about 15 athletes flew to Exos facilities in Phoenix — a hot spot for NFL prospects — where they trained with Pro Bowl players Odell Beckham Jr. and Richie Incognito. Searching for an edge, the Randolphs altered their pre- and post-workout diets to match sports scientists’ recommendations.

Each family paid out of pocket, Windows said. Having financial resources, it seems, is increasingly becoming a prerequisite to being a state title contender.

The litmus test of the team’s potential this year won’t arrive until the final three-week stretch, when the Tigers face the three playoff teams responsible for their only losses last fall.

At a preseason practice in August, they looked the part of a talented group that could contend in Class 5 — and one that was having plenty of fun. When a defensive back was “Mossed” by a receiver — the football equivalent of being dunked on — teammates screamed and tapped their helmets in excitement. Later, players argued in the locker room about who was fastest.

Independence has quickly become an exemplar in Loudoun County, and its quick success could breed more.

“We’re not going out and recruiting kids — we can’t do that,” Windows said. “I really think some people move into the area because we’ve been successful, we’ve made the playoffs, and we’re putting kids in college. It’s like, why wouldn’t you come?”