MINERAL – The Louisa County High School football team has won the Jefferson District six times since 2004, more than any other program in Central Virginia.
What is the secret to the Lions’ success?
You could make a case for all of the above.
“They established a culture and expectation of being tough and committed,” Albemarle coach Brandon Isaiah said. “They have a town of quality people behind them. Then you add kids with ability, but most of all, winning mentalities. [Job] Whalen, [Jarett] Hunter, [Brandon]Smith and the list goes on.
“That’s a scary combination.”
Louisa County won three straight Jefferson District titles from 2004-06 and haven’t lost more than two district games in a season since 2013.
“We strive to be the best we can be here at Louisa every year,” Louisa coach Will Patrick said. “Each team is made up different parts with different personalities. The common threads I see is that everyone buys in to what our goal as a program is. That goal is to give your best everyday.”
Running back Jarett Hunter and linebacker Aaron Aponte are well-versed in the program’s history and the importance of carrying on that tradition.
Hunter sat in the stands as a Lions’ fan as a kid and watched his older brothers, Andre and Anthony, have success on the gridiron.
“We’ve been able to keep that hard-nosed Louisa football tradition going and always find hard-working guys,” Hunter said. “We never shy away from competition and make sure defensively we let teams know how aggressive we are by flying to the football.”
The success started long before they get to high school.
Louisa football players are ingrained in the culture during youth league and the confidence and success is cultivated on their way through the ranks.
“Growing up watching them made me want to be them, only better,” Aponte said. “Playing in the youth leagues made me better by getting me to love the sport and motivating me to constantly work to better myself as a football player.”
The journey started nearly two decades ago, when former assistant principal Doug Straley interviewed Mark Fischer for the Lions’ head coaching position. The two devised a plan to generate community interest in the program.
Straley, now Louisa County superintendent, and Fischer organized “Midnight Madness” so that the Lions would be the first high school team in Virginia to take the field on the opening day of practice.
The two made football game nights a happening in Mineral, a place where everyone wanted to be on Friday nights. The players enter “The Jungle” through an inflatable tunnel and run through a cloud of smoke as Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” blares through the stadium speakers.
Not to be outdone, skydivers routinely enter the stadium during big games to deliver the game ball to the officials. Then there’s pyrotechnics and the firing of cannons when the Lions score. For a while, a live lion named Bubba appeared at games for more ambiance.
“Coach Fischer and Doug Straley of Louisa and others got things rolling over there. A true Friday Night Lights atmosphere,” Orange County coach Jesse Lohr said. “They have great support from all phases of the community and administration and one of the best atmospheres in high school football. The kids are attracted to that, plus, they have been winning.”
Fluvanna coach Mike Morris agreed.
“They have had an abundance of talented players and created a culture of success based on hard work and excitement at games,” Morris said. “People and the community know they are going to get their money’s worth at their games, which fuels the kids.’
“They expect to win when they step on the field. Football is 50 percent physical and 50 percent mental and they have 90 percent covered.”
The results have been impressive.
Louisa County enters the 2019 season with a 14-game district winning streak and has won back-to-back district championships. Charlottesville was the last district team to hand Louisa County a district loss, posting a 54-42 victory in the regular season finale in 2016.
“The streak is something we talk about,” Hunter said. “It’s expected that we win the district and advance on because we feel we have that strong of a team each year.”
Aponte said another key to Lions’ success over the last four years has been the bond the players have formed off the field.
“We’ve just had a lot of close-knit guys working together toward a common goal who are willing to make the sacrifices necessary and put in the hard work,” Aponte said. “We’ve just built our program on toughness and hard work, day-in and day-out.”
The senior defensive end said what attracted him to the Lions’ program was genuine.
“I wanted to be a part of the program because I love football and wanted to be a part of something bigger than just me,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be a part of the program when I saw the unity and brotherhood that transcended past whatever differences anybody had.”
“My favorite part of playing in Louisa is the family,” Aponte continued. “They’ve been here whenever I’ve needed them and they’ll always mean much more to me than they’ll ever know.”