Oct. 11 was a proud moment for the 2003 Van Horn football team. Well, at least it was at the time.
The Falcons earned a 36-0 victory over University Academy. It was their only win of the season, and with the players they had that day, getting a win was a major achievement.
It was Van Horn’s first victory in nearly two years. Winless and one-win seasons for the football program in the late 1990s and early 2000s were commonplace.
“Basically the kids didn’t have a lot of fundamentals of football (when the season started), and they have been losing for so long, that they have gotten to the point of accepting it,” said then-head football coach Edmond Thomas III.
At the time, most sports programs at Van Horn were struggling, due to the lack of participation, athletes not lifting weights, lack of offseason training and some players having limited to no knowledge of their sport.
Then in 2008, something changed. Following a vote by the area’s residents, the Independence School District took over Van Horn (and six other schools) after being part of the Kansas City School District since the school opened in 1955.
ISD had to start from scratch with most of the sports programs, hiring new coaches for nearly all of them. After 11 years of coaches and administration pushing to change the culture of Van Horn sports, several programs have found success since 2010, most notably the football and boys soccer programs, both of which are enjoying major accomplishments this fall.
“When we first took the programs over, Van Horn was the worst athletic school in the (Interscholastic League) by far,” Van Horn activities director Chris Corrie said. “Obviously, that league was not very strong, so we were starting from the bottom. We had to have the worst athletic programs in the city at the time.”
Evolution of Van Horn football
From 1997 to 2007, the Falcons had one winning season in 11 years, three winless seasons and a combined record of 17-79.
Brian Brim, who played quarterback and then left tackle in the early 2000s, said the team often struggled to find enough students to play. During his time there, the coach would recruit students in the hallway and the few experienced players tried to sell their friends on playing, even if they had no knowledge of football.
“We didn’t have the success that all these other schools had,” Brim said. “Even some of the kids who wanted to play football wouldn’t even come to summer camp. They weren’t dedicated. I think at the most we had 20 to 25 kids on the team.”
Just getting past the 50-yard line or getting a few first downs was often seen as a positive.
“We really just struggled to do anything,” Brim said. “We’d start driving it down the field, then we would fumble it or throw an interception. We had some freshmen and sophomores on the offensive line who never even played football before. They didn’t know the blocking schemes. It was hard to have a strong foundation on offense.”
“Teams would realize that and just bring all-out blitzes or just single out who the weak link was on the offensive line and attack that side.”
It was that way even during the first four years in the Independence district. Jeff Tolbert, now the offensive coordinator at Ruskin, was the head coach from 2008 to 2015. Like Thomas, he had to teach his players the basics and had to rely on players who had not played before.
The program was at a point that Tolbert even had to show his players how to put on their pants and pads on properly, and teach them the names of each position and what it entails.
“I had literally two kids who had played before,” Tolbert said of his first year. “We ended the season with about 25 (players). We were lifting weights with about six kids.”
“Some of them claimed to have watched football on TV before, but they had a distorted view of what the reality was. It’s almost like having a kid that wants to go out for high school wrestling based on their experience watching WWE.”
In Tolbert’s first three years, the Falcons had a combined 2-28 record. The team was so inexperienced, Tolbert considered it an accomplishment when his team completed basic tasks during a game.
“There were games where just being able to get consecutive snaps would be something to be happy about,” Tolbert said. “After the game, I would talk to the guys and tell them that we ran X number of plays where we actually correctly and made an attempt to try to execute the play. We had to celebrate those moments.”
In 2011, Van Horn football took a large leap toward respectability. It took the tutelage of Tolbert and establishing a culture of consistently lifting weights and participating in summer camps being the norm.
That year, the Falcons finished 7-4, their first winning season since 1997. That was the start of four consecutive winning seasons as Van Horn went a combined 27-14 against tougher competition.
“We were hoping to just win four games,” Tolbert said of the 2011 season. “It was a little sketchy at first. In the first game, we had some obstacles and the kids weren’t navigating them very well. We sat down with the players and went over what we expected as coaches.
“We hoped we would be able to survive it. We had a couple of new players and something just clicked with those guys. Pretty soon we’re communicating with one another and things just seemed to go very differently than they had before. I think the thing that did it for us was when we were playing Wyandotte. We were down 23-7 going into the fourth quarter and we came back and won 29-23. After that, we were a different group of guys.”
Tolbert said he is happy he was able to help build a once-struggling program into a respectable one.
“We felt like we accomplished quite a bit,” Tolbert said of himself and his assistant coaches. “There was a sense of pride with what we were able to accomplish after starting with literally nothing.”
In Tolbert’s last year, the Falcons went 4-6. In 2016, former Raytown defensive coordinator William Harris took over and has recently found similar success. He went a combined 5-15 in his first two years, but this season, Harris has led his team to a 7-3 record and a No. 2 seed in the Class 4 District 7 Tournament. The Falcons won the first playoff game in school history by defeating Raytown South 41-36 last Friday. The Falcons can advance to the district championship with a win over Harrisonville Friday at William Chrisman High School’s Independence All-School Stadium.
It’s a chance to show how far the program has come since 2008.
“Since I’ve been here, I have seen an improvement not just in football, but all of our athletics,” Harris said. “When I first got here, we took some tough losses. Our level of play and the type of athletes we have now has changed over the years.
“We were able to beat a couple of Suburban Conference teams this year (Winnetonka and Raytown South). These guys are ready for a that jump (in competition). We have guys ready for that level of competition. We’re progressing in the right direction.”
Evolution of boys soccer
Corrie, who was the head coach for the boys and girls soccer programs starting in 2008, didn’t have to go through a complete rebuild like Tolbert did.
Under the Kansas City School District, Van Horn was 37-34 since the program had started in 2002.
While Corrie had some players who hadn’t played soccer before, he had one experienced player who helped carry the team, Yacine Hamchaoui, who scored 69 goals in 2008. The program went 16-11 that year and had three consecutive winning seasons.
“I was lucky that we had success right off the bat,” Corrie said.
However, it was still a struggle to get players to try out for the boys soccer program. The school only had about 500 students at the time (there are currently approximately 1,000 students at Van Horn).
During the first day of practice for the boys team, Corrie only had six students there. He was expecting at least 30.
“It was tough going from Kansas City to Independence,” Corrie said. “That year I had less than 20 kids on the soccer team.”
Like Tolbert, Corrie had to change the culture of the program, getting students to buy in to working out and practicing when school was out.
There was even a moment during his first year when his team had a district playoff game on a Saturday. When the players got onto the bus to travel to St. Joseph for districts, Corrie noticed something was amiss.
“I only had nine guys on the bus,” he said. “I said, ‘Guys, where is everybody?’ They thought, ‘It’s a Saturday. We’re working.’ I am like, ‘You knew about this game.’ Then they said, ‘No, coach, soccer is great, but we work.’ I thought soccer was more important, but working was more important to them. It was a difference in culture. I wasn’t saying they were wrong; it was just different.”
In 2010, Van Horn added a weight room and a turf field. In Corrie’s first two seasons, the majority of his team’s games were on the road due to the lack of a viable home soccer field. Those additions helped the football and soccer players become more dedicated to offseason training.
“Those things were game-changers for the program,” Corrie said. “It was a tough sell to kids to train year round. They didn’t play a lot of organized sports, and it was foreign to them. Some of them said, ‘We’re actually going to practice in the summer, Coach?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’”
It hasn’t been that way in recent years. The boys soccer program has become one of the best in the Kansas City area.
The Falcons had three straight losing seasons from 2011 to 2013. In 2014, Van Horn progressed into a high-quality program, going 21-7 and making it to the Class 3 state quarterfinals in coach Greg Millick’s last season.
In 2015, Jesus Rodriguez took over and has maintained that level of success thanks to a few changes.
In his first season, Rodriguez cut six of the seven seniors from the 2014 quarterfinal team because he thought it would improve the team chemistry. It helped him build a loaded freshmen class that included current all-state player Angel DeAvila.
“I saw lots of talent without the discipline,” Rodriguez said of the 2015 Falcons. “Chris (Corrie) was a bit disappointed with me (for cutting seniors from the 2014 team). They were good players. Their mentality was not there. I was also not used to having to stop practice every 10 minutes to stop an argument. My first year, I will be honest, I didn’t enjoy coaching. In my second year, I started to enjoy coaching because those seniors were gone and we didn’t have that drama any more.”
Rodriguez’s other major change was to promote a consistent weightlifting program for his team.
“The first couple of years, I struggled to get the guys into the weight room,” Rodriguez said. “They kept saying, ‘How is that going to help me for soccer?’ They didn’t understand that we were going to play some kids that are tall and strong. We had to compete (with other team’s strength).”
“We can match speed and technical ability with just about any team. But one thing we couldn’t match before was the strength. We weren’t very strong. There were situations before when my forward was one-on-one with the keeper and the defender would come and body him off. And that was it. No goal.”
Rodriguez eventually got his players to buy into lifting weights, and it paid off. After his Falcons went 8-11 during his first year, his program has had the most successful three-year run in school history. Van Horn was 19-6 in 2016, 25-1 in 2017 and is currently 22-2 with at least one more game to play this season. The Falcons are playing for the Class 3 District 15 championship at 6:30 p.m. today against Grain Valley.
“Things have changed a lot,” Rodriguez said. “The guys come to work (in the weight room) every day.”
This season, the Falcons played a more challenging schedule, which included a win over a quality Suburban Big Six Conference team in Blue Springs South. They have also faced other larger schools such as crosstown rivals Truman and William Chrisman.
The program is now at the point at which competing for a state championship is the expectation.
“We are playing tough games. If we can win those (last) three games, I told the guys, ‘You have to believe you are a state contender right now,’” Rodriguez said after the 2-1 win over Blue Springs South. “When the playoffs start, we have to go 6-0.”
Future of Van Horn sports
Corrie noted that the wrestling, volleyball, track and field, cross country, boys and girls basketball and girls soccer programs have also seen a significant increase of success over the last 11 years.
Facilities have also seen an upgrade. Thanks to a $38 million bond issue passed by voters in 2017, Van Horn has added a new fieldhouse, which includes a new gym, an athletic training area, a mezzanine area for wrestling practices and a hall of fame area. Sod also has been laid between the school and Truman Road, and that will serve as the new soccer practice field.
“The most important thing about this is it puts Van Horn on the same level as William Chrisman and Truman as far as facilities go,” Superintendent Dale Herl said.
Van Horn went from the Interscholastic League to being an independent team in 2008 and then to the more competitive Crossroads Conference in 2010.
With the many of the Van Horn programs improving enough to compete against Suburban Conference schools, Corrie said some people have asked him if the Falcons could possibly make their way into that league. So are there any future plans for that?
“Travel is not bad (in the Crossroads Conference),” Corrie said. “The farthest we go is Olathe. That’s the worst drive, and it’s 40 minutes. We are really happy in our conference and we have good relationships with them. We have some powerhouses in our conference with Barstow and Summit Christian (Academy). It’s a really great fit for us.
“If we continue to grow, we’ll look at finding something that fits a little better. But that is way down the road.”
With the enrollment and the number of quality athletes increasing, Corrie said it’s a possibility that Van Horn could add some programs that are missing. Currently, the MSHSAA-sanctioned sports absent from Van Horn include tennis, softball and golf. The swimming-and-diving program has been hit and miss, as well. Corrie said there are plans to add a softball team in the near future.
“When we have enough girls interested in softball, that will be the team that we add,” Corrie said. “After that, we’ll access golf and tennis. We have not had much interest in those sports. I have some girls in the building who want to get the softball team running.
“It’s going to be exciting to figure out where we are going to play it. Whether we are going to use Roper (Stadium) for it or go to Adair (Park). There are a few options we have.”