In 15 seasons as Woodside’s football coach, Danny Dodson had noticed the fading numbers. Eighth-graders in over their heads on the JV team were leaving. And 10th-graders not getting enough reps on varsity were doing the same.
To Dodson, the answer was obvious: Add an eighth-grade team, which would give both groups the development they craved at different levels. But there was one problem: Newport News, along with Hampton, did not offer eighth-grade football.
They did in York and James City County. Just not with any of the Peninsula District schools.
“And we lose them on one end or another,” Dodson said. “They just didn’t come out anymore.”
So Dodson, with help from Woodside athletic director Todd Price, brought his idea downtown to Newport News Public Schools. Dodson drafted a proposal, and the two met with administrators in February.
The process, as you’d expect, took a while. A cost analysis — equipment, buses, officials, etc. — was done. And in June, Dodson and Price were given the OK to try it as a pilot program. Practice began Monday afternoon.
“It’ll give more kids an opportunity to play and get involved in athletics,” Price said. “And we won’t lose as many. It’s a win-win for the kids.”
Newport News Public Schools sees it the same way.
“More will get the opportunity to participate in football at a young age,” said Michael Nichols, Program Administrator for Youth Development at NNPS. “And the more they’re out there, the better their development will be.”
For Dodson, the benefits are clear. The eighth-graders will have their own team, which should make for more equal footing. And he’s now able to put more 10th-graders on the JV team, where they’ll get more development.
The eighth-graders’ head coach will be Diego Ryland, an assistant on last year’s JV team at Woodside and a staff sergeant at Fort Eustis.
“This is going be very beneficial,” Ryland said. “We’re just focusing on discipline, work ethic and academics. Those are the three most important things.”
Ryland, a former quarterback at Lake Taylor, said his team will run the same sets as the JV and varsity. And on offense, that means the Wing-T. The team will be made up entirely of eighth-graders (their opponents will have some seventh-graders).
The Wolverines will play an eight-game schedule against the area’s other middle school teams — Hornsby, Berkeley, Queens Lake and Toano from Williamsburg/James City County; York, Tabb and Grafton from York County; and New Kent. All games are on Tuesday afternoons.
With Woodside as a pilot program, the other Newport News high schools — Heritage, Menchville, Warwick and Denbigh — could have their own eighth-grade programs down the line.
“That’s the idea,” Dodson said. “We wanted to get this going, hoping that next year, other teams will be interested. Hopefully, we’ll have our own group on the Peninsula.”
Johnson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4649.