Transfers help boost Ireton’s chances

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This time last football season, Bishop Ireton quarterback Joe Dickinson and kicker David Cooper played on opposite sides of the world.

Dickinson made the roster at Chapin High School in El Paso, Texas, while Cooper played in South Korea on a high school military base team so bad that he never got a chance to kick a field goal all year.

Now both find themselves in Alexandria playing at Ireton this fall for the same reason: their fathers are in the military and recently were transferred to Washington.

And with the way Dickinson and Cooper are playing so far, it would be hard to blame Cardinals fans if they lobbied the Pentagon to keep them around for a while longer.

Through four games, Ireton was off to a 3-1 start. Dickinson led all Washington area quarterbacks in passing with just under 1,000 yards, while Cooper, a former soccer player, booted a 42-yard field goal in the rain - no easy feat even at the NFL level.

Both players say getting involved in sports helped with the familiar but never easy transition into a new school. They've both been to at least 10 different schools. Like children in many military families, they say it never gets easy no matter how many times you move.

"I tried out for the team in the beginning of August, and before school we'd gone through multiple training camps and two-a-days and team bonding," Cooper said. "So as school approached, I was confident that I'd at least have a group of friends who knew me."

Coach Tony Verducci, who served more than two decades in the U.S. Marines Corps and retired as a lieutenant colonel, said both players were unexpected additions to an already strong roster. But it's hardly the first time that's happened, he added.

"It's always been like that because of the turnover of the military personnel, whether it's Fort Belvoir, the Pentagon, Andrews Air Force Base or wherever," he said. "The reputation that the school community has as a welcoming place has been attractive for military families who are relocating.

"You do lose some guys because they move during high school, but then you have some guys you weren't anticipating come in."

Ranked first in passing yards and third in touchdowns, Dickinson said he was considering attending Bishop O'Connell in Arlington at first. But he chose Ireton after Verducci assured him he'd have a chance to play.

"Coach Verducci gave me a shot, and that's all I was looking for," he said one evening after practice.

Dickinson said for as many times as he's moved, it never gets easy being the new kid. But being part of the football team helped.

"I think it's huge," he said. "I came here last year in the middle of the year, and being the new kid, you want get involved in something so you can have a familiar group of people."

If Dickson was used to the big crowds of Friday night football in Texas, Cooper played on far smaller football teams over the last few years when his father - who helps coordinate medical supplies for hospitals - was stationed in South Korea.

"The teams were a lot smaller and it was a lot less competitive," he said. "But besides that, football is still football wherever you go. It's still fun to play and it's still fun to get to know people."

Last year, Cooper said his military base team always went for it on fourth down and, even when the team did score, they tried for a two-point conversion instead of kicking the extra point. That left Cooper without much else to do but handle kickoffs.

An unknown coming into the season, Cooper said Ireton is the first program that's trusted him to kick field goals. Cooper hasn't disappointed. He was 2 for 2 in the first half against crosstown rival Episcopal, giving Ireton a 6-5 lead in what turned out to be a 26-24 win.

They're hardly the only children from military families excelling on the field at Ireton over the years. Perhaps the most prominent example was 2008 Ireton graduate Andrew Rodriguez, who won the Sullivan Award in 2011 as the nation's top collegiate athlete and played football at West Point.

Both Dickinson and Cooper credit their teammates for accepting them into the program, which already was expecting good things from, among others, standout veterans like senior receiver Drew Smith, linebacker Josh Ammon and Andrew LaTrash, who had three rushing touchdowns over the first four games.

Verducci said whether they've been around for years or arrived in recent months, all of the players are part of something much bigger.

"We try to talk about the fact that every team is its own entity," the coach said. "Whether you're a senior and it's your last year or you're a sophomore and it's your first year on varsity, be in the moment. Enjoy the group you have."

And Ireton is winning after a 4-6 record last year and 1-9 finish in 2012. A year earlier, however, the Cardinals finished 8-3.

They've already won some tough games this season, beating Episcopal 26-24 after two years of big losses and winning against St. Alban's 38-6. The only loss came against O'Connell in a 54-28 defeat Sept. 6.

Smith, who has caught seven touchdown passes already to rank among the top five receivers in the Washington area, never played organized football until he arrived at Ireton as a freshman.

"I don't think these first four games have been an accident," Smith said. "We've earned what we've gotten by working. We go hard every day because we know it'll pay off on Saturdays."

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

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014

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