New James Wood football coach Wilson emphasizing fun atmosphere

64c2cee0ca0f1.imageWINCHESTER — Washcloths can be great in the summer for wiping off sweat and cooling off a hot head, but the James Wood football team has found a different use for them to prepare for the 2023 season — tug of war.
Thursday marked the Colonels’ first official Virginia High School League football practice under new head coach Todd Wilson, an offensive line coach for James Wood the past four seasons. The Colonels have been working hard since Wilson took over in January. Just over the summer, they’ve had workouts four days a week, and they participated in five 7-on-7 tournaments.
But there’s also been a heavy emphasis on fun with competitions like tug of war, and that’s something that’s been appreciated by this year’s crop of Colonels. A few players are out of town this week, but Wilson said James Wood has consistently had 70 to 80 people attend workouts.
The Colonels are coming off a 2-8 season, and the majority of starters are gone from a team that lost 22 seniors to graduation. But there’s plenty of enthusiasm for what’s ahead.
“It’s a different atmosphere,” said James Wood senior linebacker Zach Smith, a First Team All-Region 4C selection and The Winchester Star Defensive Player of the Year in 2022. “It feels like everybody’s happy, it seems like everybody’s having a good time. Everybody has a want to be here. I’ve noticed that.
“We want to win, but we also want to have fun. Winning is obviously our goal, but winning isn’t everything. You want to be here and you want to have fun.”
Senior lineman Jack Thompson has been working with Wilson, a Moorefield (W.Va.) High School graduate and former East Hardy (W.Va.) assistant, on James Wood’s varsity since he was a freshman.
“I think he’s a great guy,” Thompson said. “I think he brings a lot of energy to football and he knows football. He makes everything exciting. Everything is high intensity. Tempo is a big thing that he preaches.”
Wilson said after Thursday’s practice that enjoying the game is the most important thing.
“Football’s a game,” Wilson said. “You have to realize these are kids. We don’t need to put a bunch of pressure on them. We don’t need to make them feel stress and anxiety. They’ve got enough of that going on in the world and in the classroom and stuff like that. Kids come out to play football to have fun. What high school football is all about is to look back 10, 15, 20 years from now and have a positive memory of that experience.”
One memory could be washcloth tug of war.
“You have this cone, you put a washcloth on top of a cone, you have two people sprint at it, they both try to grab it, and then whoever got back to their side wins,” Smith said.
Smith said the conditioning that James Wood does is made easier by doing drills like that one, sprint competitions and a capture the flag game.
“It’s not just killing yourselves on the field,” Smith said. “You’re having fun while you’re competing with your teammates and your friends.”
Wilson said a varsity coaching staff that includes returners Brian Thomas, Jordan Hartman and Joey Yurish has helped greatly with his transition to head coach, and the commitment from his players has also aided him. At the 7-on-7 tournaments, Wilson said players were showing up even if they weren’t guaranteed playing time, just because they wanted to support their teammates.
The 44-year-old Wilson said he didn’t have any designs on being a head coach. But after James Wood elected not to renew Ryan Morgan’s contract in November of last year, he knew he wanted to be a bigger piece of a program he cares about.
“I love these kids,” Wilson said. “I love this community. I just thought it was a great opportunity for me to step in, because I knew who [the people here] were. I didn’t want somebody else coming in and changing everything.”
Wilson started to grab the ears of his players toward the end of February. He created a leadership council in which the coaching staff selected some of the upperclassmen to be a part of it, and those players were able to select one other person in their grade to join them. The 12-player council meets once or twice a month in his classroom for breakfast, and Wilson talks to them about their likes and dislikes with football throughout their entire career, and their vision for the program’s future.
“They’re my sounding board,” Wilson said. “If guys aren’t having fun, we’ll do something else. They know we have to work hard. Guys have been dedicated all summer to be in the weight room, things like that. But we’re trying to work hard and have fun at the same time.”
Though James Wood graduated almost half of last year’s roster, the Colonels do have some strong pieces to build around.
Smith had 139 tackles (105 solo) to lead the area last year. Other returning All-District selections are Thompson (Second Team on offense; he could play center or guard this year) and senior running back Elijah Richards (Honorable Mention), who led the Colonels in rushing with 629 yards on 123 carries (a 5.4 average) and six touchdowns.
Richards had 188 yards and three TDs on 23 carries in the season finale against Handley. Wilson said Richards will have to take on a bigger rushing load this year since senior Lane Overbaugh will miss the season as a result of an injury suffered last season that required surgery. Overbaugh was a First Team All-District kick returner who averaged 23.5 yards on 13 kickoff returns and rushed for 491 yards and four TDs.
As far as who will be handing Richards the ball, that remains to be seen.
Two-year starting quarterback Jared Neal is now at Shenandoah University, and Wilson said that the Colonels technically did not have a backup for him last year. James Wood is looking at five players without varsity experience to replace Neal. Junior Blake Messick, a wrestling state tournament qualifier last year, and sophomore Dominik Ramirez each played on the JV team in 2022. Three freshmen are also in the mix — Neal’s younger brother Owen; Adric Yurish, the son of offensive coordinator Joey Yurish; and Caden Light.
“Whoever can command the offense the best is going to be the person that we put in charge of the offense,” Wilson said.
James Wood’s scrimmages are against two West Virginia schools — Aug. 12 at 11 a.m. at Kelican Stadium against Hampshire and Aug. 18 at 6 p.m. at Spring Mills. The Colonels open the regular season on Aug. 25 at 7 p.m. at home against Warren County.
— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Follow on Twitter @WinStarSports1