VIRGINIA — A new head coach marks the ending of one era and the beginning of another.
For new Virginia head football coach Matt Anderson, transitioning his varsity team of nearly 40 players from the systems of old to the systems of new has been a challenge, but the payoff for figuring it all out can be very rewarding.
Coaching at different schools and various levels since 2013, Anderson now helms the Blue Devils. Joining him is a bevy of coaches who have all been with Virginia for a number of years.
Anderson and assistant Evan Friedlieb will be working with the offensive and defense lines primarily. Friedlieb’s brother, Jace Friedlieb, comes in as the linebackers coach. Anderson’s brother, Nate Anderson, is the quarterbacks coach. Isaac Christiansen is coaching the running backs and defensive backs and Jeff Teasck will be coaching the wide receivers, as well as leading the junior varsity team.
Of the six coaches, four of them are Virginia alumni including both Friedlieb brothers, Nate Anderson and Teasck.
Less than a week into practice, coach Anderson and his staff sat down for an interview, describing the changes the program is going through, as well as the culture they want to build around the Virginia football team.
The athletes have had some prep time with Anderson, including summer workouts, a mini-camp in July and the first few weeks of practice. Now with their first game a week away, things look to be taking shape.
“It’s fun to see how the kids are responding,” said Jace Friedlieb. “They’re taking it all in and hitting the ground running. We’re going at a fast tempo and the kids are making it their team.”
“Numbers wise, we aren’t huge,” Evan Friedlieb said. “But the kids we do have here are excited and they’re working their butts off. These first few weeks are a blast and it’s been fun to watch.”
One of things the coaches are stressing to their athletes this year is teaching the “why” on the field as opposed to just the “how”.
Nate Anderson explains it as, “It’s not just do this and go there. It’s do this and this will happen. You’re doing this for a reason. Kids want to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing on the field. If you don’t help them with that, it doesn’t work. That’s not football.”
Teaching the “why” can be daunting for some athletes, but head coach Anderson says understanding the details allows everyone to have a role on the team.
“Ultimately, we want every player to have their role on this team,” Matt Anderson said. “If they can go in and learn and find out how to execute that on the field, they’re going to grow and find their place.”
Part of that means working before and after practice to help the athletes better understand their role and how that can translate to their lives outside of football.
“Before each practice, we’ve been doing about a half hour talk about the “why” on and off the field,” said Christiansen. “Having that connection from the field to real life is something we’re trying to build.
“It’s very high character stuff that we’re trying to build off the field,” added Teasck.
The most experienced coach in terms of years, Teasck brings a unique perspective to a relatively young coaching staff full of 20- and 30-somethings.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” now that the roles have been reversed said Teasck. “I love coaching with these guys. They’ve all been a part of the program for a few years now and they’re here for the right reasons. There’s great heart and great energy with these guys.”
“When Ed Cremers took over as head coach, Gary Cornell was the experienced coach at the time and I learned a lot from him throughout the years. When I was the young guy, I was learning so much from him and the other coaches and I’d love to pass that stuff on to these guys too.”
Since his hiring, Matt Anderson has been working on building a culture that he plans to stick with for years to come. That includes holding the kids accountable and taking care of their responsibilities.
“We notice if they’re not here or if they’re late to practice,” Anderson said. “We understand that sometimes things come up or they have to make other arrangements with work or other activities. They can have other responsibilities but they have to make sure football is a responsibility too.”
The beginning of a practice will typically start with a video or power point presentation by the head coach as another means to building the new culture.
“He’s putting the culture out there,” said Evan Friedlieb of his head coach. “It’s not just doing it on day one. He’s telling them every day what we expect of them and giving them little lessons to go along with it.”
The head coach noted that it’s not only the athletes that need to pick up the new stuff.
“Our entire staff is learning it together,” said Anderson. “You can’t just sit down and do three weeks of coaches training. They’re learning it as well and repeating it to these kids and getting the message out to them.”
But that doesn’t mean Anderson is inflexible.
“Another thing Matt let’s us do is letting us bring our own things to the table,” said his brother. “It isn’t his way or the highway. If we have something to say, he let’s us say it and he makes sure we all have a voice in the program.”
Ultimately, a strong foundation will be the key to finding results on the field.
“Our focus has been to build the character first,” Christiansen said. “The results and good outcomes will come with that.”
With the kids held accountable, the coaching staff hopes to make the team one that the players could run, in a sense, themselves.
“I think a player led team is way better than one where the coaches are forced to lead,” said quarterbacks coach Nate Anderson. “If players take care of each other and build each other up, it makes our job a lot easier and it makes coaching them a lot easier.
Teasck agreed with the importance of a team led by it’s players.
“When Nate and Jace were seniors (class of 2011), those guys took care of everything. They led the younger guys. They told them what to do and how to do it and everyone followed them. It was easy.”
With a large contingent of the staff being Virginia alum, many noted how important it is to help lead the program that was so impactful to them growing up.
“It means the world to me,” said Evan Friedlieb. “I’ve been a Blue Devil my whole life and to be able to give back to this school and community is very exciting for me.”
While Matt Anderson graduated from Hibbing, his brother Nate transferred to Virginia and shared his unique perspective.
“When I transferred in, the team and the community took me in. It’s great to be a part of it now and I’d do anything for this community that gave so much to me.”
“Even if you stay here or leave for five years or even 10 years, you’ll always be a Blue Devil,” Jace Friedlieb added. “As soon as you come back, you’re right back into it all and it’s just great to be a part of it.”
The head coach has said in the past that the team’s success could be magnified with more players taking to the field. Getting those players to come give football a shot has been a task for this year’s current players.
“We’ve kind of put it on the players,” Jace Friedlieb said. “We can only do so much as coaches but the players are the ones that can be sending out texts and knocking on their buddies’ doors.
“Even if we don’t get more, the 40 that we have on the field are the ones that want to be here and put in the work. They’re building the culture and they’re the leaders for us.”
Virginia’s senior class this year is smaller than most, just five or six athletes. That presents problems of it’s own. To combat this, the coaches are leaning on both seniors and juniors, as well as working on building leaders from every grade level.
“The junior class is very big,” head coach Anderson said. “But all of our older guys are athletic and leading us on the field right now.”
“We have a lot of multi-sport athletes too,” Nate Anderson added. “This means they’re putting themselves into more tough situations. And the more times you see those tough situations, the better you become for it.”
With building leaders, the coaches have worked on some leadership training opportunities over the summer.
“We tried to bring in guys from different areas and different grades,” Christiansen explained. “We want everyone to be comfortable leading and contributing wherever they see fit.”
As seasons go by, the Virginia football coaching staff hopes that players in the coming years will come in with the culture already instilled in them. That way only the youngest or those just coming out for football will need to be shown the ropes.
“With all the kids learning our culture and how we run things now, those will be the ones teaching it to the new kids next year,” Anderson explained. “The standards will be set and it’ll help football and character building come together.”
“No matter what the record or scoreboard shows, we’re going to come every day with a positive attitude for these kids,” Jace Friedlieb said. “And we want them to have the best experience possible.”
In the end, the first season under Anderson will be a learning experience for everyone and that’s exactly how they want it to be.
“Being a first time head coach, I want to lean on these guys as much as I can. They’re doing a phenomenal job and we’re trying to get things done for the kids on the field and we’re trying to set them up for success in the future.
“We’re changing some things but we’re building on some things too. Coach Cremers left us some really good bones and we’re just adding on to it now.”
Virginia opens its season this Friday when they play host to Rush City. Below is a capsule look at the Blue Devils.
Head coach: Matt Anderson, first year.
Last year’s record/playoff finish: 2-6, lost in the 7AAA quarterfinals
Key losses to graduation: Anton LeBeque, Carter Crandall, Tyler Herberg, Jordan Checco, Caleb Bialke, Jack Zupetz, Tommy Carmody, Dawson Flatley.
Key returners: Jack Toman, Jayden Bernard, Ryan Scherf, JJ Bridgewater, Ryan Hujanen.
Others expected to contribute: Jake Burress, Nick Peters, Ben Wilson, Tommy Nemanich, Josh Stickney, Brady Seppala, Kyle Williams
Team strength: Our quickness and offensive line.
Team weakness: New systems to learn on both sides of the ball.
Season outlook: We look to be a resilient team on both sides of the ball and focus on continue improvement throughout the season. We would like to be consistent with what we do and try to focus on things that we can control on and off the field. We have an energetic group who are buying into a new culture that provides more than just playing a sport. We want to develop good character within our student-athletes and allow them to experience what hard work feels like while instilling confidence that will aid them on and off the field. We hope that believing in Relentless Effort, Competitive Excellence and the Power of the Unit we can accomplish a lot this season.
Goals for this season: 1, 100% eligibility/zero violations. 2, Compete for conference. 3, Go 1-1 every two weeks. 4, the Highway 53 Sign (trophy between rivals Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert). 5, No silent sidelines.
Teams to beat in the section/conference: Two Harbors, Esko, Aitkin, Eveleth-Gilbert.