The Gold Standard: How a new approach has reinvigorated the Monticello football program


On Nov. 4, 2022, the Monticello football team played its final game of the season at Charlottesville High School against the rival Black Knights.

For the Mustangs, the duel played out a familiar fate, as high hopes from early success dissipated until the game’s conclusion, where they were on the losing end.

“It’s how the whole season was. We always started off well, and then we’d just break down,” outside linebacker/tight end D’rhon Jackson said. “And once the other team made a big play, everybody would put their head down.”

Charlottesville’s 27-14 win in the 2022 season finale was not an example of a team simply outplaying the other. A lack of discipline from Monticello resulted in 170 penalty yards that night.

“It wasn’t just a loss — it was a loss in which we had several players get unsportsmanlike penalties,” head coach Matt Hicks said. “We had two players ejected.”

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The grotesque defeat was something the Mustangs had grown used to, with it marking their 19th loss in 20 games over their two most recent seasons.

“We had terrible attitudes,” quarterback Owen Engel said. “It was a culmination of the frustrations of the last two years.”

There was a clear sense at Monticello that a new approach to the football program was necessary.

“Walking off the field after a loss to Charlottesville in which I believe we had 170 yards of penalties against us and two player ejections — it was definitely something we looked at as a staff,” Hicks said, “and we decided, we’ve got to commit to a change.”

Monticello players celebrate a fumble recovery during Friday’s game against Fluvanna County.

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The structural adjustment made in the offseason was titled “The Gold Standard.” The name matches the colors of the numbers each Mustang dons on Friday nights, but more importantly, represents heightened expectations for each person within the program in different aspects of life.

After combining to win one game the previous two seasons, Monticello has an 8-2 record in 2023, and is preparing to play its first playoff game since 2017 on Friday at Spotswood.

The rapid improvement on the field is rooted in growth in a variety of ways off the gridiron. The Gold Standard is broken down to four pillars — academics, character, commitment and community.

“Our first pillar of The Gold Standard is academics, and we lead with that one very intentionally,” Hicks said.

Monticello players are now required to maintain a ‘C’ average or higher in each of their classes.

“A ‘D’ is not acceptable,” Engel said. “In the past, I don’t think that people that have had D’s or have had F’s have been held accountable for that. This year, coaches are constantly checking on grades.”

This season at Monticello, celebration is not reserved for a Mustangs player crossing the goal line or getting a game-changing takeaway. An upstanding report card holds a similar value for the team.

“We give out helmet stickers for grades, so there’s an incentive to having better grades,” Engel said.

Monticello’s Owen Engel celebrates during the Mustangs’ win over Fluvanna County.

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Some individuals have seen a major shift in their academic performance after The Gold Standard’s implementation.

“One young man in particular sticks out. He had a 2.0 GPA last year as a sophomore,” assistant head coach Joe Weaver said. “Now, he currently has six A’s in all of his classes.”

The success in the classroom has translated to the field.

“If your students learn the keys to success in academics, they can apply those same skills into what they’re doing with their athletics,” Hicks said. “Whether that’s a homework assignment leading to a test, or a Monday practice leading to a Friday win, all of those things are really transferable.”

Regarding other goals within The Gold Standard, it has also helped the Mustangs avoid the penalties that frequently punished them previously.

“On the character pillar, [it’s about] doing the right thing,” Hicks said. “Whether that doing the right thing is if a player does something to you that warrants a foul on them, just not responding.”

Monticello’s Tre Early for Monticello is hugged by a teammate during a game this season.

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The change in approach did not take place overnight. There were 269 days between Monticello’s final game of 2022 and its first practice of 2023, and many of them were dedicated to getting people in the program on board.

“If everybody shows up and it’s July 31, and we’re ready to run the first series of plays for fall football, and that’s the first time we start talking about character, commitment, academics and community, those pillars don’t have the same impact — they don’t have the same meaning,” Hicks said.

Following the loss to Charlottesville, Hicks took some time to reflect on the season. Eventually, he went on the road and talked with coaches from successful programs he sought to take influence from.

“In my down time away from the program in the offseason, as winter sports programs were getting rolling, I had met with other coaches that I had met throughout my time in Virginia that I believed were running great programs,” Hicks said. “Those programs each had different levels of success, and they also all had different challenges that might come with being successful.”

Although discussions of a structural shift floated within the coaching staff during the 2022 season, they intensified in January. As the plan became more concrete, it was established for the players, and was largely met with positivity.

“I loved it,” Jackson said. “I was like, ‘If they’re willing to make a change, we have to be willing to make a change.’ And, if they weren’t going to make a change, then it was going to be a repeat of the same two seasons.”

A new enthusiasm engulfed the Monticello football program as it prepared for the next year. Engel, a basketball player during the winter, was unable to attend winter football workouts. However, he was pleased to hear about the new atmosphere in the weight room.

“I was talking with some of my teammates who were there, and they kept mentioning the shift in attitude that they saw from the group of guys who were there,” he said. “The weight room was electric — there were plenty of people in there.”

The Monticello football team runs onto the field for their season opener against William Monroe.

CAL CARY, THE DAILY PROGRESS

The Gold Standard emphasized attendance at the offseason workouts for those not competing in winter and spring athletics. Those who did not meet the requirements were not permitted to play with the team in the fall.

“It held people accountable, made sure people were engaged,” Engel said. “And eventually, it filtered out those people who weren’t 100% committed.”

The new approach to the program reached beyond the players. From January to late May, the coaches met with each player and parent individually to discuss expectations, and had all parties express their interests.

“I sat down and had an opportunity to meet with every family in our program,” Hicks said. “And talk with them about what areas of the program they would like to see us focus on, and talk to them about what we were trying to focus on as a program.”

The coaches had the understanding that the reform of the team needed to go beyond the Mustangs’ record. No matter what the scoreboard said after each game, The Gold Standard’s success would be represented in many layers of life that can be traced back to the four pillars.

“It’s not just enough to say, ‘We’d like to win more football games, and this is why we’re making these changes,’” Hicks said.

Yet, along with the increase in academic success, character development and commitment, Monticello is also winning on the field.

The difference on the gridiron was felt from the very first game of the 2023 season. The Mustangs trailed by 14 early against William Monroe, but managed a comeback that resulted in them winning 42-28.

“Last year, we would have folded,” Weaver said. “But, because we were holding everybody to a higher standard, they weren’t willing to just implode or to fold.”

Four of Monticello’s eight victories have been following deficits of two or more scores, and much of that has to do with a newfound attitude the Mustangs have developed.

“I think guys are more confident,” Weaver said.

“[We have] a completely different body language on the sideline,” Engel added. “We got guys excited for each other, players standing next to coaches, ready to go on the field.”

Along with a more encouraging mindset, players have noticed more accountability from each other than in previous seasons.

“The past two years, we’ve had people arguing, yelling at each other,” Engel said. “And this year, it’s communication and talking.”

“Instead of pointing fingers at each other, we pointed fingers at ourselves,” Jackson added. “And it helped us come together.”

Monticello will be a difficult opponent for Spotswood this upcoming Friday, and the Mustangs will provide their best effort to advance in the state playoffs. However, no result could reverse the dramatic improvements made within the Monticello football program. Additionally, a variety of players will have their lives put on a better course due to some of the changes implemented.

“We’re very excited our commitment to doing these things that we’re doing is helping us be more successful on the football field,” Hicks said. “But it’s more than that.”

The individual and collective advancements can be credited partially to the attitude the coaches display toward the people they mentor.

“One of the biggest reasons that we coach is to help young men with life, and using the game of football to do that,” Weaver said.

Following a victory in which Monticello came back from a three-touchdown deficit to defeat rival Albemarle on the road by one point, Hicks identified the ultimate sentiment of The Gold Standard:

“We want to build champions for life.”

Chris Gionta

cgionta@dailyprogress.com

@Chris_Gionta on Twitter

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