At the heart of any successful football team is its offensive line.
This year’s William Monroe High School football season began with high expectations for the team and, in particular, the offensive line. After struggling early in the season, the offense started to come into its own, leading the Dragons to a 4-1 district record and its first home playoff game since 2016. The Dragons went 6-4 in the regular season.
After the first few games, head coach Jon Rocha knew it was time to make some changes.
“We switched some players between positions and shuffled some of the boys between the JV and varsity teams until we found the right chemistry,” Rocha said.
Rocha also brought up Bruce VanDyke from the JV team to focus on the offensive line.
“Coach VanDyke had worked with the boys before at the JV level and they just had a really tight bond,” Rocha said. “The move let him work with the line while I was able to shift my focus to other areas of the team that needed attention. We were each able to dial in and do what we do best.”
According to Alex Critzer, the junior lineman who had a season-ending injury midway, it all started to come together when Monroe hosted Madison County High School in mid-September.
“Coach VanDyke simplified the system for us,” Critzer said. “That really helped us to get back on track.”
Senior Johnathan Walcutt echoes that sentiment.
“Coach VanDyke hypes us up,” he said. “He makes us feel important. Like the keystone of the offense.”
“It all starts with the offensive line,” he said. “That goes for every offense in football. As our line has bonded as a unit, players like Dupree (Rucker) have been able to shine.”
And shine he has. Rucker has been one of Central Virginia’s most successful rushers this year with more than 1,800 yards on the ground. With a regional quarterfinal game this week, the senior is on pace to break Monroe’s single-season rushing record.
“I’d never be able to get the yards that I have without the line,” Rucker said. “They are becoming men out there, staying on blocks and making it much easier for me to run.”
Junior Jack Gareis said he believes the success lies in their being more connected than ever.
“We just feel more like a family than before. We eat lunch together and hang out after school,” Gareis said. “We’re close and just getting closer. That relationship helps us to know, without even speaking, what a defense is doing and how to respond.”
While many would consider the Sept. 20 Madison game to be a turning point, the greatest success for the Dragons would have be its away victory over Western Albemarle High School on Oct. 4.
According to junior Trevor Myers, “no one expected us to win. I walked into a local store wearing my jersey that day and someone told me that the game was an automatic loss for us. That just fired all of us up to work even harder.”
The win against Western was just the confidence boost that the line needed going into the second half of the season. With the play of quarterback Jared Knights steadily improving, Rocha said it felt like the team started to click just when it needed to.
“Jared’s play has freed the O-line to be able to block even better,” he said. “I’m feeling very confident in our chances against Skyline this week.”
For Knights’s part, he attributes much of his success to the line.
“They really set the pace for the team,” he said. “When they get fired up so do the rest of us.”
A win this week would be the first playoff win for the William Monroe football team since the 1991 season. For Rocha, this is just the beginning.
“We’re looking very good up front,” he said, “but we need to get as strong as possible in the off-season if we are going to take it to the next level next year. With most of this year’s line returning next year, we are in a great position to make that happen. I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do.”
While they are proud of the work they’ve put in this year, the line is fully aware of what they need to do to be prepared for next year.
“The key to next year’s success is to improve on repetition, building muscle memory and developing new skills so that we can develop more complex blocking schemes,” Gareis said.
Freshman Daniel Hall plans on spending the off-season “doing sprints, hitting the weights and attending lots of camps to improve skills.”
The future indeed looks bright for these players and for the Monroe football team as players and coaches continue to have high hopes for this program over the coming years.
Come out to Martin Mooney Field on Friday, Nov. 15 to support the Dragons as they take on Skyline High School (5-5) in the Region 3B Quarterfinals. The Dragons beat Skyline 41-27 at the Oct. 18 regular season matchup.