O’Connell football to leave WCAC

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The football program at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington will withdraw from the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference and play an independent schedule beginning in the fall of 2016, according to Head of School Joseph Vorbach. A WCAC member since 1993, O'Connell is the third and final diocesan high school football program to depart the conference. Fairfax's Paul VI Catholic left in 2011; Alexandria's Bishop Ireton left several years prior.

A primary reason for the decision is "a dedication to the school's mission," said Vorbach. "We are supposed to constantly evaluate all programs in light of our mission, which is to provide students an education rooted in the life of Christ and to foster the pursuit of excellence in the whole person."

Vorbach said the decision to leave "was not an easy one" and involved input from a variety of sources, including the school's leadership team and board of governors.

Within the context of a growing awareness about the effects of head trauma in high school sports, safety also was cited as a reason for the departure. "As part of reviewing our program, we were looking at broad trends in the sport," said Vorbach. "Football is a sport that requires a lot of players, and it's the most intense contact sport in high school." If the school is entrusted with the development of mind, body and spirit, he said, "we must look at that in the context of football."

Vorbach said one way the school supports this holistic understanding of students is in its new Play Like a Champion Today program. Through a partnership with the University of Notre Dame, the program uses athletic competition to instill virtues in student-athletes.

"It focuses on sports as a ministry and the ways in which parents and the school can work together," Vorbach said. "This all speaks to the idea that the athletic program is in service to the mission of the school … and balances the academic, athletic and spiritual."

O'Connell will remain a Division I school in the Virginia Independent School Athletic Association and now will be eligible to compete in football for a VISAA state championship. The school's other sports will continue to compete in the 12-member WCAC, which now will have seven participating football programs.

As it begins to assemble an independent schedule for next fall, O'Connell will dialogue with other Catholic and private schools in the state and region. "Our goal is to build a competitive schedule and compete for the state championship in the VISAA," Vorbach said.

"As with anything, change is tough in the beginning," said head coach Colin Disch, who was hired last April to replace Del Smith, who led the Knights for three years.

Disch said he was in "total support of the decision," but acknowledged the players have had a lot to adjust to, between a new coach and a conference change. "But at the end of the day, what the players want is to be held accountable, they want a vision for the program, and they want to know that we are giving them the best we can for them as a person," he said.

After expressing some initial concerns, parents and players have now "totally bought in," said Disch. "All the kids and parents have handled it really well.

"At this point we are trying to build a program," Disch said, pointing to their 1-9-0 record this season. "It really doesn't matter what conference we play in. We need to create discipline, comradery and leadership. We need to develop the guys and keep them together and help them get into some of the best colleges in the country," he said. "We are building up the whole person."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015