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(Sept. 19, 2013) When you walk on the plush field-turf and immaculate stadium grounds at John Champe High School, it sure seems like a place where things should come easy. The school is so new it’s not even filled to capacity like every other Loudoun County school, no trailers dot the campus, and in the evening the sunset mixes with the cool autumn air and creates a painting that would make Norman Rockwell jealous.
But playing football is hard, and the Knights of John Champe know just how hard it can be. Last year, in their first year of existence, the varsity squad—with no seniors on the roster—went 0-10. That’s zero wins and ten losses. This season, the team started off the new era of Knight football with another loss, a potentially demoralizing 42-0 loss to those damn hippies at Central High School of Woodstock, Virginia.
(Wait … my editor, wearing a pair of Birkenstocks no less, just informed that Central is from that other Woodstock!)
And then, something crazy happened.
Last Thursday, the hot Potomac Falls Panthers traveled to Aldie, and the Knights did something they never had before … they won. In pulling off a wild 10-7 overtime victory, the Knights hit an important milestone in the history of any program, the team’s first win. Perhaps more importantly, the players and coaches at Champe received the affirmation they needed after nearly a year and a half of seemingly unrewarded toil and sacrifice as they tried to build a program from the ground up.
Jason Dawson became the school’s first head coach and started up the varsity program in January of 2012. The Knights coach is pretty recognizable among area coaches, with the stocky build of an undersized linebacker, an ever-present beard, the deep booming voice of a back-up singer for the Temptations, and an energetic personality that makes you want to put on helmet and pads and play for his team.
Having come from a very successful run as an assistant coach at Broad Run high school, Dawson is accustomed to, among other things, winning, as evidenced by the two state championships and 33-game winning streak the Spartans enjoyed during his time there. But perhaps more importantly, Dawson understands the little things that led to winning, such as the culture, commitment, and consistency necessary to build a winning program, traits that he hoped to instill in his new Knight program.
“Playing football is not casual, it’s a commitment,” said Dawson, “Coming from a program where winning was the expectation each week, it was a hard adjustment for me personally going through [the losses].”
Building the culture and consistency at Champe did not come easily at first.
In fact, one of the key things the team lacked was a building. As their own high school was still being constructed, Dawson and the Knights had to scramble for a place to work out before the start of their inaugural season. After a brief stint at Freedom High School, the Knights eventually settled at Mercer Middle School, and had to rely on borrowed weights and equipment from his former colleagues, head coaches Matt Griffis of Broad Run and Mike Burnett of Tuscarora. Among the high-speed athletic training equipment that the Knights were able to procure were Paula Abdul step-up boxes, essential pieces of training equipment in any serious football weight room.
But even after begging and borrowing their way to a, eh, respectable facility that first preseason, the team still struggled to develop the commitment that Dawson felt was necessary to build a winning program.
“Every other day we were getting texts from kids missing practice. There was no consistency. Folks didn’t understand the commitment it takes to win at a very high level,” said Dawson.
In some respects, the Knights may have been fighting a truly unwinnable battle last season. Even with no seniors on the roster, the team eschewed the option of playing a junior varsity schedule in favor of diving right into varsity competition. The results were generally lopsided as the Knights lost every game, often falling apart in the second halves of games as their more seasoned and mature opponents wore them down.
After the season, Dawson and his assistant coaches may have faced the greatest challenge of their careers: getting kids to buy into even more hard work, training, and commitment after not garnering a single win the season before. Somehow and someway, perhaps due to the same resolve and fortitude that helped the team secure the totally sweet Paula Abdul workout equipment the year before, the coaches not only convinced players to stay committed to the program, they convinced them to work harder. For nine months, players and coaches worked five days a week at weight training and conditioning. Finally settled into a legitimate training facility at their own school, the team had great attendance at work out sessions and later football camps.
“It’s nothing new, it’s just what other good teams do,” said Dawson.
In addition to the physical benefits, junior linebacker Stephen Young felt that all of the off-season work began instilling a different mindset and greater expectations in the players.
“We got bigger, faster, stronger, absolutely, and also a different mindset. Last year was more ‘we’re a first year school,’ we had these excuses like we’re just going to go out there and put up a fight, but this year we want to put up a fight and win.”
And win they did last Thursday. Spurred by a 70-yard touchdown run by Andrew Bushrod—with a key block from fellow senior wide recover Alex Rearden—and what proved to be the game winning field goal in overtime by sophomore William Nichols, the Knights closed the book on the school’s winless past. But this team is by no means satisfied with what, in all respects, was actually a historic win. Looking to build upon not only the win itself, but the backdrop of hard work and dedication that laid the foundation for the win, players and coaches alike want more.
“[The win] was phenomenal, it was a great experience, and it will be a memory that these kids will have forever. What they felt Thursday can never be replicated, but we didn’t do this to win a game, we did this to win multiple games and to go to the playoffs,” said Dawson, “The challenge for us as coaches is to create the culture that this should be the norm; this is the expectation, not the exception.”
“It is a big burden off us,” said Young about the win, “but it’s just a start. We can’t be satisfied with just this one win; we got a whole season in front of us.”