Debut of Female High School Football Coach Is a Loss
WASHINGTON -- It wasn't the fairy-tale ending result everybody had hoped for. Natalie Randolph's first game as head coach of the Coolidge High School football team was a 28-0 loss to neighboring Archbishop Carroll High on Friday night. But that only slightly dampened the enthusiasm of the overflow crowd at Coolidge's field in Northwest Washington, most of whom clearly had shown up to witness a milestone that had shone a positive light on the school.
"I've seen Coolidge lose before,'' said principal Thelma Jarrett, who was instrumental last spring in making the 30-year-old Randolph one of a handful of women ever to coach varsity high school football. "But they lost with pride tonight. I'm proud of them, either way you look at it. That's what I thought would happen when we hired her, that she would make us proud and this team would make us proud.''
If the Coolidge players were caught up in the moment -- it was covered by far more local media than for a normal season opener between less-than-prominent teams, and was documented by ESPN for an upcoming special -- it was understandable. School officials said that crowds that large only tend to show up for homecoming games. This crowd included Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty and three members of the city council, plus Randolph's former teammates on the D.C. Divas, the city's women's semipro football team. All were on hand on a night the Redskins' preseason game against the New York Jets was being televised, and there was very little checking of scoring updates from the Meadowlands.
Five minutes before kickoff, the public-address announcer got the spectators in the proper mood by announcing, "The Natalie Randolph regime has begun.''
It was up to the soft-spoken -- at least in front of the cameras -- Randolph to put the night's events into perspective and lend them some humor. "It's only a football game, it's only a football game,'' she said she had been telling her players and anyone else who brought it up all week. "The only reason everybody is so excited about it is because I have different parts than everybody.''
Otherwise, she said after the game, "It's always been about football and not all the other stuff. This is a football team, and it's like I told the kids, we're playing a football game, and we have to go try and win it.''
That was too much to ask for the inexperienced, undermanned, largely undersized Colts, who returned no starters from last season's team that finished 6-4 in the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association. The expected starting quarterback, senior Stephon Stevens, transferred to another school just before fall practice began (the public schools have a liberal transfer policy for all students, making frequent player transfers to stronger programs a recent phenomenon).
In Friday's game, promising senior quarterback Chris Strong, a converted running back who was solid in the first quarter running the option, was knocked out of the game early in the second quarter while the game was still scoreless.
Another Coolidge player, junior offensive lineman Charles Gaines, was taken off the field by ambulance to Children's Hospital in the third quarter. Both injuries were attributed by coaches to cramps; the nervous players essentially forgot to hydrate themselves well enough before the game.
Coolidge's problems were easy to attribute to a team that's young and tight: it was done in by penalties, especially in the first quarter, and turnovers. Its best two drives of the first half ended in an interception inside the Carroll 5, which resulted in an 82-yard drive for the game's first touchdown; and in a blocked 32-yard field goal in the final seconds before intermission. Carroll later scored on a five-yard fumble return after a sack.
Freshman Jonathan Haden -- the brother of Cleveland Browns rookie safety Joe Haden -- ran for two touchdowns for Carroll.
Carroll has recently been one of the lesser programs in Washington's Catholic schools league, which is perennially led by Maryland suburban powers DeMatha and Good Counsel, but it was still bigger and deeper than Coolidge, making the
final score less than a surprise.
Nevertheless, it was a night of celebration at the school, as students and alumni wore their orange-and-blue colors and shouted their encouragement for the history-making coach, a Washington native and former assistant at another city public school, H.D. Woodson. Constantly during the game, fans ignored the action on the field to scan the sidelines for the 5-foot-3 Randolph -- who was often obscured by her players, but still easy to find because of the minicam and boom microphone shadowing her throughout the night.
"You always want to be a trendsetter, you always want to push the envelope.'' said Mayor Fenty, "But like I've said, the reason she's the coach here is because she knows football, and knows it extremely well. She deserves this opportunity, and I can't think of anything more encouraging than to see someone get an opportunity that he or she has earned.''
Fenty later congratulated Randolph over the P.A. system during a third-quarter time-out.