The Washington Post’s “First and 17” series will follow Woodbridge defensive end Da’Shawn Hand, the top-rated football recruit in the country according to, as he decides where he will go to college. The series premieres on Aug. 23. (Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)

When Da’Shawn Hand was approaching high school, his father encouraged him to keep his options open. Most of his friends were going to his neighborhood high school in Prince William County, Hylton, which is considered a football powerhouse.

But, Da’Shawn said, “I wasn’t thinking about football.”

He visited another nearby school that had a good academic reputation, a strong sports program, and an engineering curriculum. “That was right up my alley,” he said.

So he transferred. Four years later, the rising senior is not only a standout on the Woodbridge football team, he’s considered the top recruit in the nation for the Class of 2014 by He is also the proud designer of a robot and a set of blue prints for the kind of athletic facility he dreams of building someday.

Hand’s chosen high school is one of the county’s largest, with 2,830 students. Despite its size, Principal David Huckestein said it has a close community feel.

Da’Shawn Hand, a senior defensive end at Woodbridge High, has narrowed his college choices to Alabama, Florida or Michigan. This graphic compares the three.

In an area mostly defined by transience and growth, Woodbridge has long roots. The school opened in 1964 to serve the growing Lake Ridge neighborhood about 25 miles south of Washington D.C.. Today, the imposing brick building is still surrounded by green lawns, parks and rows of townhomes and single family houses.

Many of the same neighbors come to football games every year “whether their kids are here or not,” Huckestein said.

What used to be a predominantly white student body has become a plurality, with a mix of white, Hispanic, and African American students, and immigrants from all over the world.

“Students here are used to being with a very diverse group of people,” said Alan Ross, a former Woodbridge principal.

The high school is well known for its fine arts program. Teens commute from far reaches of the county to take part in theater, music or creative writing programs.

In the late 1990s, the school introduced Project Lead The Way, a national program designed to expose high school students to engineering.

Approximately 200 students are enrolled in the specialty program, where they learn to work in design teams and to use professional software. They take a sequence of courses that includes digital electronics, principles of engineering, civil engineering and architecture.

Hand said his interest in engineering stems from what he has learned from his father, who is a brick layer. “I like building stuff and being innovative and creative,” he said.

His ideal job would be to build stadiums and finance them. His curiosity about business comes from his mother, an events promoter and a good negotiator, he said.

In his architecture class, Hand designed an athletic field house with a basketball court, weight room and training room, a two-floor locker room and two team meeting rooms. In a digital electronics class, he built and programmed a robot that could follow a line and go through a maze and even wrestle with other robots and push them out of a Sumo match ring.

Carlos Castro, a former electrical engineer who directs the program, said a lot of his students join the school’s robotics club, which went to the world championship in Anaheim, Calif., each of the past two years.

Hand devotes most of his extra hours to sports.

The school’s athletic hall of fame is outside the main office. On an August morning, Huckestein read aloud some of the universities where Woodbridge graduates have gone to play football: “Kansas, Alabama, North Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, University of Michigan.”

Hand has offers from multiple schools, and he plans to announce his decision on his 18th birthday, Nov. 14.

For now, he is keeping his options open.