Woodlawn lineman Isaiah Marshall already knew Elwood Townsend's winning reputation before the former Douglass and Reginald Lewis football coach took over the Warriors program this spring.
"I heard about him since I was in middle school and I always wanted to play football for him, but I came to Woodlawn," the senior said. "Everybody in Baltimore County and Baltimore City knows him. He's a great guy, a great coach, very, very successful with his offense and his defense. I appreciate him coming to coach us."
Marshall said he felt a new energy in the team as Townsend, The Baltimore Sun's 2012 All-Metro Coach of the Year, prepared to put the Warriors through their paces Wednesday afternoon on the first day of practice for fall public school sports.
The Warriors, who finished 2-8 last season, hope their new coach will do for them what he did for Douglass and then Reginald Lewis. In seven years at Douglass, he built the Ducks into a Baltimore City power and a state Class 1A finalist in 2013 and 2014. Last season, he guided Reginald Lewis to its first undefeated season and its first playoff win.
"I'm sorry I'm a senior and I only get to play for him one year," wide receiver-safety Ernest Soden IV said, adding that Townsend is stern but straightforward with the players.
Senior defensive end-linebacker Tyson Douglas agreed.
"I met him at a combine … and I really like him as a coach. He means what he says. He says if we work hard, we'll be great and I believe that."
Townsend, who officially took over the Woodlawn program in March, sees the same potential there that he saw at Douglass. He called Woodlawn "a gold mine" of talent and aims to build the program back to the prominence of its heyday, when the Warriors reached the state semifinals seven times between 1976 and 1983, with a trip to the title game in 1977. Since then, they've been to the playoffs only six times, lastly in 2009. They've had just one winning season in the past seven years.
"I think that just like Lewis, the kids were there already but they hadn't had that taste of success in some time," Townsend said. "I think that's the biggest challenge, the change in culture. The kids want to win. They're hungry to win and they want to be better."
Athletic director Vanessa Locke, a Woodlawn graduate, said it wasn't only Townsend's knack for building winning programs that caught her attention. He immediately began helping players, including last year's seniors, with recruiting.
"Not only him, but everyone who coaches with him, they're all on the same page and they're all about making these kids better and taking them to the next level," Locke said. "His contacts and connections with colleges and recruiters, all of that he has and that's what I feel we were missing — that connection with the next phase of football. From the time that he got the job, we've had Penn, Maryland, Temple, coaches from all of these schools come in, and that wasn't happening before."
About 50 to 55 players turned out on a consistent basis for summer workouts three times a week, a number Townsend was happy about.
The Warriors and their new coach said the transition has gone smoothly for the most part as Townsend installs new systems on both ends of the field.
"It's been a nice experience to learn new ways to work out and get better," senior wide receiver-defensive back Marquis Ragin said. "His approach to offense is very quick, no huddle, so we need to be well conditioned and just always on the go. The transition has been good. We've been coming along, learning real well, but we've still go some rocky spots to work on and we'll pick it up now."
Townsend said the players have been receptive to his changes.
"They're not fighting it," he said. "They want to work hard. This is about building a brand. This is about these kids building a legacy. Woodlawn has some tradition back in the day but not for quite some time. This is their time to build their own tradition. I'm going to be stern. I'm going to be tough. I'm going send you home when you're late to practice. I'm going to bench you when you're acting a fool in class. I'm going to do all those things I did at Douglass to turn Douglass around and for the year I was at Reginald Lewis. Either you're all in or you're all out. There's no in between."
The Warriors open the season Sept. 1 at 1 p.m. against the toughest Baltimore County opponent they could draw: Franklin, the three-time defending county Class 4A-3A division champ and 2013 and 2014 state Class 3A champion.
Franklin coach Anthony Burgos, last season's All-Metro Coach of the Year after taking the Indians to the state 3A final, doesn't think it will take Townsend long to build Woodlawn into a contender.
"I joke around with Elwood all the time like, 'I know you're going to be a problem,' " Burgos said with a laugh. "He's going to make things more competitive. Not only is he a great coach, but I think he has that personality that kids gravitate towards him. In the next couple years, I think Woodlawn is going to be a team that will do very well. Obviously, the school's already flooded with talent. He's the type of coach that's going to be able to keep kids really engaged and focused on academics and making sure they're able to play."
After competing in the Class 4A-3A Division in Baltimore County the past few years, Woodlawn will be in Division III as county officials have reorganized divisions to make them more competitive. However, the Warriors also play another of the county's toughest teams, Milford Mill, as well as New Town and City.
Townsend, who called the Woodlawn position a dream job, doesn't plan to stay in Division III for long.
"My objective over the next couple of years is for us to be the big dog in the county. It was just like when I took over Douglass. We were at the bottom of the barrel and we had the Dunbars and the Citys and the Polys, the Edmondsons of the world to contend with. We had to fight and claw our way, and I think the staff that we have now in place, we're in it for the long haul. I'll plant my feet here and try to grow as many trees as we can."