Jonathan Clark needs no reminders of the one-time dominance of Patrick Henry High School football.
“In four years at Atlee, we never beat Patrick Henry,” said Clark, a Raider alum from the Class of 1998. “We went to their place two games and got beat, and they came to us twice and we got beat.”
He also saw the Patriots’ Colonial District legacy, spending the mid-2000s on the sidelines as an assistant coach at Deep Run during that program’s quick ascent to football success. His Wildcats came closest to beating Patrick Henry in their last undefeated regular season, 2005, losing to the Patriots 21-20 in overtime, only to return the favor a year later, scoring a 21-20 victory in Twin Hickory as Clark and the Wildcats went 12-1 and won the Central Region Division 5 title.
Clark, who has been on the faculty staff at Patrick Henry since 2009 and spent two years (2010-11) as JV coach, was formally named Patrick Henry’s third football coach since 1982 last week. Clark, 33, has admittedly taken the road less traveled to this point, but quickly points to steady influences along the way.
“Coach [John] Trott was my high school coach, and he was a great football coach. He also taught us a lot about life. His defensive coordinator at the time was Lenny Pritchard, and I really looked up to him,” he said.
Pritchard was the head coach at Deep Run during most of Clark’s tenure, and a chance meeting between the two led him to the Wildcat sidelines.
“I didn’t do the right thing coming out of high school to give myself a chance to extend my playing career. In 2003, when Deep Run expanded to start varsity, I happened to run into [Pritchard] at Dick’s or somewhere like that, and coaching came up in conversation.”
His first season was unpaid, then he joined the staff for good in 2004. Clark, as he put it, “cut his teeth” coaching for the Wildcats, and, along the way, built relationships that he hopes will pay dividends for Patrick Henry in the future.
“One of the coaches at Deep Run who also played at Atlee will be the new defensive coordinator here,” Clark notes.
His announcement as coach has been met with excitement so far among the students, staff, and players. Clark has already received congratulatory messages from parents. At a time where Patrick Henry admittedly lags behind in on-field performance compared to their county brethren, he is keenly aware that there are pieces in place for a resurgence in Ashland.
“My first year as JV head coach (2010), we went 8-2,” Clark mentioned. “I recognize that with some exceptions, I’ve got those kids now. The kids are excited. Seeing their reaction and knowing that for the most part they know what I’m about, the things that I’ll expect of them.”
Clark also has a greater appreciation of them. He did not coach in 2012, taking time to work on a degree in sports management from VCU and to welcome his daughter Ellis to the world. Clark also has a 3-year-old son, Landry, with his wife Rachel. They reside in Mechanicsville.
“Taking the last year off made me realize just how much I enjoy spending time with the kids,” Clark opined.
There’s the obvious question asked by Patriot fans: How long until we return to glory? But the great mystery surrounding this move is, just what is Jonathan Clark’s philosophy of football?
“My philosophy is all about building relationships, and I told the kids at a meeting last Friday there is going to be some demands put on them that they may have not had put on them in the past,” Clark said. “It’s nothing that should be shied away from; they are things that are going to help them off the field. We’re going to be disciplined. I’m big on fundamental football.”
Clark notes that much practice time will be spent individually, to get the little things right.
“If you don’t have the little things, it’s not going to magically come together on Friday night,” Clark said.
He has already scheduled seven-on-seven passing league events and has August scrimmages scheduled against Caroline (away) and Eastern View from Cumberland (home). The team is in the weight room, but when asked about the added pressure of catching up to Hanover, Lee-Davis, and Atlee, who own five playoff appearances in the past two years as Patrick Henry went 5-15 during that span, he says he feels little of that.
“My main concern now is getting our kids to buy into the changes we’re making. Once we’ve done that, the rest will take care of itself.”
Clark comes in during a period of change for all high school football teams, thanks to the new reclassification to six divisions undertaken by the Virginia High School League taking effect in September. Though their schedule isn’t supposed to change much for the next two years, by 2015, Patrick Henry will find themselves facing new “conference” rivals like Halifax, Orange, and Albemarle, creating new, longer road trips, and a different path to post-season play. The Patriots are in the 5A North classification and will play in Conference 16. By comparison, Atlee and Lee-Davis will be in Division 5A South in Conference 11, while Hanover is in Division 4A South in Conference 20.
Thus, it’s possible for the county to have two state football champions in the same year. But that’s all for another day. Right now, Jonathan Clark is racing to ready the foundation of the 2013 Patrick Henry Patriots…and beyond.
“I’m excited at the premise of what this season can bring,” Clark said with confidence. “I really think we can be successful.”
Patrick Henry fans are, no doubt, excited at what Clark can bring to Ashland as a new era dawns.