They look at each other and smile when asked whether Osbourn High School’s football team is for real this season.
Standing inside the school’s weight room, Quentin Davis, Diego Aviles, Nigel Burke and Xavier Williams-Baye understand the reason behind the question: Osbourn has struggled over the years and no one knows that better than this group.
They’ve experienced the lopsided losses and the one-win seasons.
They’ve dealt with the perception their program is a perennial cellar-dweller with no end in sight. They’ve seen the dwindling numbers that will leave Osbourn with only a varsity team for the second straight season. Revising the narrative requires proof.
And yet, there is hope.
Osbourn returns eight starters on offense and defense from a team that recorded its first winning record (4-2) in 10 years. Senior Jakari Lewis, a two-time first-team all-Cedar Run District selection and 1,000-yard rusher, is back. A favorable schedule against similar-sized schools awaits.
1. FREEDOM (3-3, 2020 regular record)
So go ahead and ask the question again: Do these four teammates who grew up together and endured the ups and downs of competing for a downtrodden program think Osbourn is for real this season?
And they are not alone. Opposing head coaches see the same potential.
No wishful thinking. No happy talk. Osbourn has turned a corner.
“The position we’re in, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s greater than it’s been before,” said Aviles, a senior linebacker. “The team is in the right mindset and our attitude is up.”
THE RIGHT HIRE
The turnaround began with a suggestion from Tom Gryder.
Gryder knew Osbourn needed a new head coach after former Washington Football Team lineman Chris Samuels stepped down in 2016 following an unremarkable two-year stint. And Gryder knew the ideal candidate to replace Samuels: Cortez Whiting.
Gryder coached Whiting at Gar-Field and then gave him his first coaching job at his alma mater after Whiting graduated from Virginia State University. Whiting went on to coach at Woodbridge, Potomac and North Stafford.
Gryder also had a connection with Osbourn. Gryder graduated from the school, and his father, Wayne, was a former head football coach and activities director there.
“[Whiting] relates well to the kids, had accumulated a wealth of knowledge, had the work ethic and was ready to be a head coach,” Gryder said. “He’s from the region, would stay for the long term and I knew the administration at Osbourn would find his goals and aspirations to match the school system and theirs.”
Whiting, then 30, had never applied for a head coaching job before, but heeded Gryder’s suggestion to consider Osbourn. He’d coached against the Eagles as an assistant and knew they had talent. That helped in his decision.
He was also realistic about the challenges Osbourn faced.
As the high school football season returns to its normal schedule this fall, a drop in turnout remains an issue.
The days when Osbourn had 120 players come out, fielded teams at all three levels and dressed 60 kids for varsity games were long gone. So were the days when future NFL players Brandon Hogan and Lucky Whitehead led Osbourn to another playoff berth or a state title.
Instead, Osbourn suffered through one losing season after another as the landscape changed at the lone high school in the city of Manassas. From 2012 to 2020, the Eagles went 25-61.
A number of factors contributed to Osbourn’s struggles – some related to football, others tied specifically to the area.
The Greater Manassas Football League, a grass-roots youth program that introduced kids to the sport and produced many future Osbourn players, ceased operations.
Demographics changed as well, as Osbourn’s student body became more diverse with a higher Hispanic population, reflecting the Manassas community as a whole. Hispanics don’t traditionally play American football, but they comprise the majority of the student population now. Based on the latest data, Osbourn began the fall of 2020 with 67.1% of its 2,227 students listed as Hispanic.
Safety concerns tied to concussions, players transferring out, costs and single-sport specialization also played a part in declining interest.
With these trends expected to continue, it was clear that whoever took the head coaching job needed to invest in it with the right motives and open eyes. Although the applicant pool included experienced head coaches with state championships on their resumes,
Whiting impressed Osbourn’s search committee and administration. They saw the same characteristics that Gryder did.
Whiting possessed the patience, youth, energy, passion and determination to connect with players. He also planned to stick around long term with a plan in place. Osbourn announced his hiring Feb. 23, 2017, and the buzz began.
Osbourn activities director Ira DeGrood said at the time Whiting reminded him of another first-time head coach he hired at Unity Reed: Loren Johnson. Johnson coached there five seasons before going to Highland Springs, where he won four straight state titles from 2015-18.
“I’m not saying [Whiting] is Loren, but I got the same feeling like Loren when we chose [Whiting],” DeGrood said.
Whiting’s hiring excited search committee member Steve Schultze as well.
As the last head football coach to oversee the Eagles’ turnaround and as an Osbourn graduate, Schultze understood the qualifications needed to overcome a defeatist attitude among the players and institute a successful rebuild.
Schultze loved Whiting’s calming influence. It’s why Whiting thrived in the classroom as a special education teacher working with students who have learning, mental, emotional or physical disabilities. And it’s why Schultze believed Whiting would inspire on the field.
“The school needed a fresh start,” Schultze said. “He was a local kid who was willing to jump in and go to work.”
To help set a new tone, Whiting tapped into his vast coaching network to figure out what worked and what didn’t. For starters, he emphasized the need to compete with the players he had. It was a lesson he learned playing basketball at Gar-Field for Andy Gray.
As the only high school in the city of Manassas, with one middle school as its feeder, Osbourn is landlocked when it comes to receiving transfers. If students live in the city of Manassas, they go to Osbourn. If a student transfers to Osbourn, they must move into the district. No exceptions are allowed, unlike in Prince William County, which has specialty programs spread among its 13 high schools and allows incoming high school freshmen to attend a high school outside of their zone and play sports there if they are admitted into that school’s specialty program.
Whiting also structured his practices to conform to Osbourn’s limited numbers. The move allowed him to become more efficient in how he used his time and what he used it on.
He built relationships to the point that some players considered him a second father.
He hired a coaching staff that shared his vision and would serve as mentors. The hires included four Gar-Field graduates with connections to Whiting: Running backs coach Mike Copeland and offensive coordinator Rasheed McClaude, who played at Gar-Field with Whiting, and defensive coordinator Taylor Modlin and linebackers coach Tavon Town, whom Whiting coached at Gar-Field. All four played in college and have been with Whiting from day one.
In addition, Whiting wanted to maintain a connection with Osbourn’s past. When Whiting got the job, he hired Mike Johnson and Ron Lane as well as Rich McCleskey. Johnson and Lane are Osbourn graduates with deep ties to the Manassas community. Justin Fisher joined the staff this season. All four are holdovers from Osbourn’s heyday under Schultze.
Perhaps most importantly, Whiting tapped into Schultze’s knowledge as much as possible.
Schultze understood Whiting’s situation. He took over as Osbourn’s head coach in 2002 when Osbourn endured its last drought. The Eagles went 2-8 Schultze’s first season during which they ended a 32-game losing streak.
Eventually, Osbourn became a state power under Schultze, going 14-0 and winning the Group AAA, Division 6 state title in 2006 with Hogan as quarterback.
Schultze gave Whiting all his organizational files. He helped Whiting better understand things like how fundraising worked and how to order equipment and supplies. Schultze also advised Whiting to revise Osbourn’s non-district schedule by finding opponents that aligned better with the Eagles.
In Whiting’s first two seasons, Osbourn was outmatched. In 2017, the Eagles faced four playoff teams (North Stafford, Woodbridge, Hylton and Freedom) among their first five opponents and lost by a combined score of 197-27.
In 2018, they played the same four teams and lost by a combined score of 233-18, including a 75-6 loss to Class 6 state runner-up Freedom. The Eagles finished 1-9 both seasons.
Whiting remembers Gatorade calling him his first season to ask his opinion on three standout running backs they were considering as the state’s player of the year: North Stafford’s Devyn Ford and Hylton’s Ricky Slade, who both went on to sign with Penn State, and Freedom’s Tyquan Brown, Prince William’s all-time leading rusher. Gatorade reached out to Whiting because he was the only coach who competed against all three players. Lucky him.
A change was in order. Taking Schultze’s advice and with the support of DeGrood, Whiting found opponents with similar-sized rosters.
This season, six of Osbourn’s regular-season games are against five teams (the Eagles play Osbourn Park twice) that went a combined 3-27 last season. Osbourn’s first game is Aug. 27 at Class 3 Manassas Park. The Cougars are coming off a 1-6 season and have only a varsity program.
In addition to Osbourn Park (0-7 in 2020), Osbourn also plays fellow Class 6 opponents Colgan (0-6), Unity Reed (1-4) and Freedom-South Riding (1-4).
“It’s not about who the team is, but the numbers,” Whiting said. “With Manassas Park, we have the same demographic population, they are close and the kids know each other.”
Osbourn’s turning point came in its 2019 regular-season opener at Patrick Henry-Ashland. The Eagles lost to the eventual Class 4 state semifinalists, but only by eight points. The loss showed the Eagles they could hold their own against a talented team with a comparable amount of players.
Although the pattern repeated itself through last season, Osbourn remained upbeat.
“We were in games, but we just could not finish,” Whiting said. “We just ran out of time. Our numbers are the same, but we’re not scared of any challenges.”
Other factors have contributed to Osbourn’s rebuild.
The Eagles have two players competing for Division I football programs: Antonio White, a 2019 graduate, signed with Elon, while 2020 graduate Chance Hollingsworth is at Howard. Both come back when they can to help the team on the field. A quarterback, Hollingsworth ran the scout team during Osbourn’s first week of practice.
“You can play for your neighborhood school and still go to college,” Whiting said.
Jakari Lewis’ arrival boosted Osbourn’s chances as well. Lewis began at Unity Reed, where he was the Lions’ junior varsity quarterback freshman year before transferring to Osbourn as a sophomore.
Whiting said he was familiar with Lewis through the youth leagues and middle school. Lewis said he transferred for increased playing time on varsity. His older brother was also at Osbourn at the time.
While not an immediate starter, Lewis transitioned quickly with the help of running backs coach Mike Copeland. In his first season, Lewis rushed for 1,137 yards and seven touchdowns and set a single-game school rushing record with 327 yards on Nov. 7, 2019, against Osbourn Park.
In the spring, Lewis remained productive despite a compressed schedule caused by the pandemic, He gained an area-high 1,132 yards and scored 11 touchdowns in six games.
The 5-foot-9 Lewis will switch to quarterback this season, a move designed to take advantage of his running and throwing abilities. But he will remain the same threat opponents have to prepare for.
“He’s so elusive,” said Patriot head coach Sean Finnerty. “He has speed that you can’t coach.”
Whiting likes the team’s overall makeup and experience. It’s a group who has known only Whiting as their coach.
Besides Lewis, other returning all-district players are senior lineman Matthew Pack (first-team defense), Aviles (first-team defense), junior defensive back Nigel Burke (second team), Davis (honorable mention linebacker) and senior left tackle Brandon Hastings (honorable mention offense). All of them are three-year starters.
“This group defines us,” Whiting said. “They are our kids. They represent us.”
Diego Aviles wasn’t supposed to be part of that group. He never considered playing football at Osbourn when he arrived as a freshman. Basketball was his sport of choice.
But his friends encouraged him to try football based on his size and athleticism. The 6-foot-3 Aviles appreciated the push and came out his sophomore year.
With his limited experience, Aviles is still a project. Whiting laughs how Aviles still moves side-to-side like a basketball player instead of north-and-south like a football player.
But he appreciates Aviles’ commitment. Instead of playing basketball his junior season, Aviles trained in the weight room to get stronger. The progress is evident and the potential remains.
Quentin Davis joined the football team as a freshman. He’d watched Osbourn as an eighth-grader, but had no idea the depth of their struggles until he began playing for them. For a brief moment, Davis thought about transferring after his first year.
But he stayed for one reason: “It would be like leaving a family,” Davis said.
Comments like that are why Whiting does what he does and why he remains optimistic about what is ahead. He and his staff have worked tirelessly to reach this point even though obstacles remain.
The pandemic set back Osbourn’s attempt to generate more interest in the program through efforts like youth camps sponsored by Whitehead, who currently plays for the Canadian Football League’s BC Lions.
The low turnout remains an issue. In Whiting’s first season, Osbourn had freshman and varsity teams followed by only junior varsity and varsity the next two seasons. Osbourn has 60 players this season, but did not have enough players at certain positions or had players lacking overall football experience to field a program beyond one level. For safety reasons and to preserve depth in case of injuries, Whiting chose to only have a varsity team for 2021.
After the Eagles beat Wakefield 14-0 Aug. 19 in their final scrimmage, Whiting mentioned a number of highlights from the game, including Nigel Burke grabbing two interceptions and returning one for a touchdown. The biggest positive, though, was staying healthy.
He breathes a sigh of relief. Another good sign. That’s all Whiting asks for.
“The key is not to go backwards.”