Phil Anastasia: So far, less has resulted in more for Washington Township football program

Washington Twp. coach Mark Wechter scaled back the workload after last season's 3-7 finish. So far, so good: a 5-1 start.
Washington Twp. coach Mark Wechter scaled back the workload after last season's 3-7 finish. So far, so good: a 5-1 start. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 16, 2011

Mark Wechter looks like a football coach: Short hair, square jaw. He stands up straight. He could pass for a military man or police officer.

He doesn't look like a rebel.

He doesn't look like a freedom fighter against the constraints of conventional and conservative coaching wisdom.

But there's revolution in the air around the Washington Township football program, and Wechter is leading the insurrection.

"Last year was rough," Wechter said, explaining the radical changes to one of South Jersey's most established and successful programs.

Let's be clear from the start: Washington Township still plays football in the same fundamental way. The Minutemen are 5-1 this season because blocking and tackling have formed the foundation for a skillful offense, a sturdy defense, and solid special teams.

Time-tested stuff. Typical stuff.

What's different - what's revolutionary, really - is the way the Minutemen prepared for this season, the way they trained in the summer, and the way they work each week.

"After last year, we all were thinking this offseason was going to be the worst one," Washington Township senior cornerback Mike Hill said. "It turned out to be the best."

Wechter was crushed by last season. Washington Township went 3-7, the program's first losing season since 1984.

To the coach, the losses weren't even the worst of it. The worst part was the look in his players' eyes.

"We were playing the game robotic," Wechter said. "It wasn't the kids' fault. It was my fault. They were here too much. They were here 12 months out of the year. It had become a job."

This is where Wechter breaks away from most of his coaching brethren. I mean, he breaks completely into the clear.

To most coaches, especially football coaches, it's counterintuitive to react to a losing season by demanding less of the players, throttling back, working fewer hours. It's akin to blasphemy.

This is football, mister, where the best programs work eight days a week and 13 months a year. This is football, where bad breaks are overcome by wind sprints and weight training, by sweat and sacrifice.

Just look at the Top 10. Just look at the time and effort invested by those coaches and players.

Wechter was undaunted. He was convinced that the right way to go - for himself, his coaches, and most of all his players - was to cut back on the mental and physical demands.

In the summer, the Minutemen used to work out five days a week, for nearly five hours a day. Wechter cut it down to three days a week, for less than three hours a day.

"And one of those was a fun day, where we'd go to the lake, do a little work, and then barbecue hamburgers and play Wiffle ball," Wechter said.

There were other changes. Big changes. Practices have been shortened by an hour. The offensive and defensive schemes are simpler. There's less hitting. Film study is less extensive, even for the coaches.

Wechter said the Minutemen needed a new philosophy, and he invented one - HEAT, an acronym for heart, effort, attitude, and toughness.

"That's our only concern," Wechter said. "We're not concerned about opponents. If we're bringing the HEAT, we're successful."

There's been a drastic change in weight training, too. The Minutemen have switched to Russian kettlebells, cast-iron weights that resemble cannonballs with handles.

They are following a nontraditional program stressing core strength and hip flexibility as opposed to standard lifting with standard equipment.

"We haven't been in the weight room since April," said Wechter, who took a rigorous course last spring to become a certified kettlebell instructor.

This isn't a big team by Group 4 standards. But Wechter says the Minutemen have dramatically increased their functional football strength.

"We all can feel it," Washington Township senior two-way lineman Anthony Costa said. "We're all so much more refreshed."

Remember, too, that Wechter has made these changes to one of South Jersey's most established programs, in one of South Jersey's most football-crazy places. This is Washington Township, where past success hangs heavy in the air, where parental and community and alumni involvement and expectation are ingrained in the sports culture.

Six games is hardly a definitive sample. This team still has tough games ahead with Pennsauken, Shawnee, and Williamstown, plus, perhaps, the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs.

But the Minutemen have been one of the surprise teams of the season. They are loose. They are making big plays. They are averaging 30 points.

They also are getting home earlier.

So are the coaches.

"This is high school football," Wechter said. "These kids have lives. We have lives. There has to be some balance.

"I told myself, 'If I can't be successful doing things this way, then I'm not doing it anymore. I'm not going back to having these kids out here every night until 6:30.' "


Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223, panastasia@phillynews.com, or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports

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