Knights hope to rebound under new coach

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New Jersey football fans usually pull for the Philadelphia Eagles or the New York Giants depending on where they live - but not Colin Disch. Growing up in the Garden State, the new head football coach of Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington was a hardcore Baltimore Ravens fan.

Soon after he got his driver's license in high school, Disch drove all the way to Baltimore so he could study and analyze the Ravens' defense in person from the stands.

"I was so into that defense and I just had a real deep passion for how they played the game," said Disch, who later became a three-time captain and an All-American linebacker for the University of Albany in New York.

For a student of the game, Disch will have plenty of teaching material to get his team ready for the Sept. 12 game against Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria. His first game as head coach on Saturday ended in a 38-0 loss to McDonogh School, one of the top-ranked programs in Maryland.

"We had a lot of kids on the field who never had varsity experience and playing an opponent like that, there's some good to that," Disch said. "We can watch the film. We can see where we made mistakes. We can show them what we can do better."

For the past three years, Disch worked as an assistant at O'Connell under former Knights Head Coach Del Smith, who is now defensive coordinator at Bridgewater College. Before Saturday's game, Smith sent Disch a text message saying good luck.

It's true the Knights needed more than luck to stop McDonogh running back Mylique McGriff, who scored four touchdowns, but Smith recalled his own high school head coaching debut years ago at the Blue Ridge School in St. George. The result was pretty discouraging, he said in a phone interview, but his team went on to have success.

"I told myself, 'This will never happen again,' and it really just changed everything about my approach," Smith said. "You can be an assistant for 25 years and you can never simulate what it's like when you're in charge. And I'm sure Colin will walk away from that football game with a lot of ideas."

Smith said he first came to know Disch while watching him play at Albany. At the time, Smith was working as an assistant for Wagner College in New York. When Disch found himself in the Washington region applying for an assistant coaching job, Smith said he didn't hesitate to hire him.

"He's very talented, and he really just has a phenomenal feel for the players and what their buttons are and when to push them and when not to push them," Smith said.

But Smith and Disch also took over the program under decidedly different circumstances. When Smith got the job, the Knights only could get better following a 1-9 season. Under Smith, O'Connell posted 5-5 records for three straight years.

Disch knows that with improvement comes expectation. When announcing the new head coach back in April, Athletic Director Joe Wooten said Disch played an "integral part" in the program's transformation, but he also spoke of Disch's taking the Knights to "the next level."

"Del did a great job laying that foundation," Disch said. "Now we're trying to get over that hump, and I think everyone expects that. The expectations and the standards have risen."

O'Connell has a roster of mostly underclassman, including talented sophomore quarterback DeJuan Ellis. But there's a core of seniors whom Disch said he'll be counting on for leadership, like standout wide receivers Brandon Magee and Duke University-bound Myles Hudzik. Among others, Disch also mentioned linebacker Landon Word, who is headed to the University of Virginia next fall, and the team's highly recruited offensive tackle, Jay Jay McCargo, who is committed to the University of North Carolina.

None of the seniors were thinking about college games next year in the moments after Saturday's loss.

"It's a long season and I think we'll be OK," Hudzick said. "But it's a very humbling way to start the season."

Yet humbling defeats, on the field and off, have a way of teaching a thing or two.

As he gathered his team in the end zone after the game, Disch reminded his players, many of whom had just seen their first varsity action, that it's going to be a long season. And he said it won't be defined by one game against McDonogh School.

"I told them that this is going to be a great learning tool," Disch said. "It's the first game of the season, and in a couple of weeks, we won't be talking about this one too much. But for now, what we do need to do is to learn and grow from it."

McElhatton is a newspaper reporter living in Alexandria. He can be reached at jimmcelhat@gmail.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015