An end of an era at Woodbridge

Potomac coach Bill Stearns came down from New Jersey in the early 1990s in hopes to build up the Panthers’ running programs.

When he got there, he immediately found out what all the other coaches in the county already knew: Woodbridge was the benchmark for success.

“You look around at who’s good and what you have to do to be the same caliber as Woodbridge,” Stearns said. “They were successful and winning every year, so you say ‘this is what we have to do to be on that level.'”

Jim Rodgers was largely responsible for that success. After 36 years of coaching cross country and track, including 23 at Woodbridge, the Follansbee, West Virginia native is putting away the clipboard for the last time. Rodgers will be retiring from Woodbridge in June of 2003 and is planning to move with his wife to the Winchester area.

He will be leaving behind a legacy and a list of accomplishments that won’t be forgotten for a long time.

During his first stint as Woodbridge’s cross country and track coach from 1970 to 1978, Rodgers won back-to-back boys state cross country titles in 1974-75. Led by state champion John Henry, the 1975 team placed an amazing five runners in the top 15 in the state.

After leaving the area in 1978 to coach in Florida and West Virginia, Rodgers came back to Woodbridge in 1988 and won a boys state cross country title in 1990.

In his coaching career, he has amassed 42 district titles and 21 regional championships in cross country and track. For active coaches, Rodgers has a Virginia-best 216 boys cross country victories (260 in all), and the third-most girls cross country victories (149, 205 overall).

Rodgers, who has served as Jay Arther’s assistant track coach since 1998, was also named Virginia Cross Country Coach of the Year in 1992 and 1998 and was a finalist for national coach of the year in 1992.

Rodgers attributed much of his success to having great runners and great kids. But along with that, Rodgers believes he has maintained an even-keeled approach that has worked as well with the John Henrys as with the John Does of his former teams.

“I try to treat the slowest kid on my team like I treat the first kid, my fastest runner,” Rodgers said. “And I’ve always done that. I think that is why we’ve had some good teams because the people that were never going to score points feel like they’re just as important on this team as this guy that’s up here scoring.”

“He gets on me just as much as he does the freshmen,” said senior Galen Huling, who is the Vikings’ No. 1 runner after battling to stay in the top five as a junior. “He’s pretty consistent with what he says. He is so knowledgeable, he’s been around so long he knows pretty much anything and everything about running and he cares about each person on the team.”

And he reminds each and every team of the program’s past success.

“I try to tell them that they are part of tradition that started way back in 1970 and has prospered year after year and as an incoming freshman, this is what we expect of you,” Rodgers said. “And we expect you to put flags on the wall like the people before you did. [I] tell them you have ability and this is what you need to do to be good.”

“They have had that tradition and he was the catalyst of it,” added Forest Park coach Dave Davis. “He cares for the kids, that’s the biggest thing. If you care for the kids and work with the kids, winning is going to happen. He was always very concerned with what his athletes are doing.”

After Rodgers, there have been many Prince William County coaches that have followed in his footsteps successfully. Before taking over the Georgetown track and field program, Ron Helmer had tremendous success as the Woodbridge head cross country coach in the 1980s, winning three state titles in five years.

Davis followed Helmer and won a state title with the Woodbridge boys in 1988 and two girls state titles with Hylton in the 1990s before eventually coming to coach at Forest Park in 2000.

And Stearns won three boys district titles and has been runner-up to Rodgers in the Northwest Region on several occasions. Stacking up against Rodgers and Woodbridge was always a fun challenge, said Stearns.

“One of the great things I’ve enjoyed in my 12 years here is that fact that we have shared some great rivalries and we’ve done it in way that we have had great respect for each other’s kids and the kids have had great respect for each other,” Stearns said.

Rodgers adopted Woodbridge as his new home in 1970 after attending school in rural West Virginia. He ran for West Liberty State College and graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education and Business. However, it wasn’t until well after college that he decided to pursue coaching in high school.

After a three-year stint as an assistant wrestling and assistant track coach in Mingo Junction, Ohio, Rodgers took over as head wrestling, cross country and outdoor track coach at Woodbridge. In 1972, he started the indoor track program and then moved to Daytona Beach, Fla. in 1978 for personal reasons.

In four years at Mainland (Fla.) High School, Rodgers started a girls cross country program and coached the boys cross country and boys and girls track teams. In 1982, Rodgers took over the cross country and girls track program at Brooke Senior High School in Wellsburg, W. Va..

Over the years, each team has been memorable for different reasons.

“It’s been a lot of work but it’s also been a lot of fun,” Rodgers said. “I think you remember different teams, like the team where we had five guys finish in the top 15 in the state, I will always remember that. That was quite a feat. But this young bunch I have here, they are going to stay in my memory for a long time. It’s going to be sad to not be here to watch them grow.”

Rodgers hopes new assistant coach Leroy Worley can take over the reigns as the Vikings’ head coach for years to come.

“My objective has been when I decided I was going to retire that I would like to get someone to come and work with me that was a good coach, that I respect and that I would like to have work with my kids,” Rodgers said. “Leroy Worley is here. Leroy is working with me and with these kids.”

Worley would like nothing more than to keep Woodbridge on the Virginia cross country map.

“I want to continue the tradition that’s already been established by Coach Rodgers, Helmer and Davis,” said Worley, who ran for Helmer’s brother, Jim, at Southwestern College (Kan.). …It amazed me when I went into the gym and saw the banners that are on the wall. The majority of the district, region and state [banners] are from cross country and track. That, in and of itself, keeps you motivated to keep up the program at that high level.”

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