By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
Despite inheriting a team that reached the state final in each of the last two years, new Bishop Ireton head football coach Kevin Barger refuses to get ahead of himself as the new season approaches.
The Cardinals reached the final of the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association tournament in 2014 and 2015, but both times came up short against Richmond powerhouse Benedictine. Now under Barger, who succeeded Tony Verducci as head coach earlier this year, Ireton is looking to do even better.
But Barger, who arrived at Ireton after serving as an assistant coach at Catholic University, said it is crucial to take things slow.
“I’m one of those ‘take it one week at a time’ kind of guys,” he said. “Needless to say, our three Northern Virginia fellow Catholic schools are dates that everybody gets really excited for. Those generate a lot of excitement, but the most important thing is if we can go 1-0 in a week and do that 10 times, then the season will take care of itself.”
Barger took over a successful program, led for nine years by Verducci, who won more games than any other head coach in program history. But the New York native is not daunted by the task ahead of him, and said it presents more stability than coaching in college.
“College coaching is constantly changing jobs, constantly changing locations,” Barger said. “It’s a unique opportunity to be able to take over the state runner-up two years in a row, as opposed to most coaches, who have to take over an 0-10 team. It was such a unique and special opportunity; it was something I didn’t think I could pass up on.”
So far, Barger said practices have been focused on improving his players’ fundamentals, with the team beginning full contact drills Tuesday. The team also ran spring practices, and has spent the summer working on strength and conditioning, which Barger spent seven years coaching at Catholic among other responsibilities.
“At the end of the day, we have a lot of very talented players, but talent will only take you so far if you don’t tackle well, if you don’t block well, those things,” Barger said. “We’ve been really hammering home a lot of work on the fundamentals.”
That focus has been combined with learning new offensive and defensive schemes and plays. The Cardinals are set to run a Pistol offense, a version of the spread scheme that focuses on the run game but allows for plenty of passing plays too.
Around 40 players took to Fannon Field for practice Monday evening, and Barger said he expects more to come be- tween now and the team’s first scrimmage at home against Thomas Jefferson on August 18. Several will play on both sides of the ball, a challenge players said they relish despite the physical demands.
“[Playing both ways] is taxing, but I think most of it is mental,” said senior defensive end, tight end, wide receiver and fullback Silas Sullivan. “If I mentally don’t give in, I won’t get tired. I’m having fun, so that’s enough for me.”
“I didn’t really play both ways last year, so the transition is a little rough. But I think I’m getting used to it,” said senior wide receiver and cornerback Sam Smith. “I just like being a part of the action, honestly. Going both ways is something new, and I thought I’d be open to it and try it.”
Having had a taste of state championship games the past two years, several players said they want to go even further and win the school’s first state title since 1992, when the Cardinals were co-champions of VISAA Division II with St. Anne’s-Belfield.
“I think it starts with the attitude of the team and how they feel, and how much they’re committed to it and believe in the team,” said senior offensive and defensive tackle Joseph Wenger. “That’s what it’s all down to. Everybody really committing, [having] discipline, sticking to all their roles and plays. If they do that and do it well, there’s nothing to it.”
Benedictine remains the team to beat, however, having triumphed over the Cardinals 23-7 in the 2014 state final and 35-6 the following year. The Cadets travel to Fannon Field in the regular season on October 15, and the players are determined to come out on top.
“You’ve just got to take it one day at a time, one week at a time, one play at a time,” Smith said. “[Benedictine is] big, they’re fast, they’re strong but we’ve got those guys too. We’ve got to beat them hand-to-hand and hope for the best. Hopefully we stay healthy and play our best against them. We’ve got to play a good game.”
“We all know each other really well, and a lot of people would love to see that be the state championship game again,” Barger said. “We almost have to go back to basics and start al- most all over again, which every season you have to do, but with a team with this much playoff experience, it’s easy to look at possibly the 12th game of the year but it doesn’t matter if we don’t win the first couple of games.”