When he was hired as Heathwood Boys Soccer Coach six years ago, Andrew Richardson was the youngest head coach in the state. At 21 years old, he had not, in fact, even graduated from college. But he quickly proved that age and experience aren’t the only markers of coaching success. Within five years, he took an overachieving 2015-16 Highlander squad to the state championship and was named 2016 state coach of the year.
Richardson’s quick rise through the coaching ranks doesn’t surprise his players, or Heathwood Athletic Director Jeff Whalen. “When I hired Andrew I knew that he was mature beyond his years as a soccer coach,” Whalen says. “As we have all seen,Andrew has continued to grow into being one of the better coaches that I have been associated in my 28 years as an Athletic Director.”
Longtime Heathwood players Aidan Powers, ’17, and JD Davis, ’17, echo those sentiments. Calling Richardson “by far the best coach I have ever had,” Davis says “He makes you realize what the badge means and what playing for the badge means. It’s all about playing for something bigger than yourself, not only for your teammates, but the players before you who used to play. He wants you to carry yourself off the field in ways that show the character that he teaches us in practice. He not only teaches us to be better soccer players, but better men. It is all based off of three words that he says lays the foundation not only for high school, but for our life: ‘Faith, Dedication, Leadership.’ It is about so much more than just your self, and it is so much more than just soccer.” Powers adds, “Coach Rich has played an integral role in my technical growth as a soccer player, but more importantly, he has helped me learn to play for something bigger than myself. “
Now Richardson is stepping up to a new challenge: heading up both the girls and boys soccer programs at Heathwood. That, says Whalen, is a good thing for both programs: “With the experience that he has gained in his six years here it became apparent to me that Andrew would be able to handle coaching both the girls and boys programs. I am confident that we will see the same success in the girls program that we have seen in the boys program.”
With the 2017 soccer season just around the corner, we asked Coach Richardson to talk about why that dual role was appealing to him, what his plans are for the program’s future, and why coaching at Heathwood has felt like such a good fit.
How did you get your start in coaching?
In all honesty, out of boredom. Of all the sports I’ve played, soccer has always been my first love. After I was injured and couldn’t play on my college team any more, I was spending a lot of time in my dorm room with nothing to do. So I texted Cardinal Newman coach Will Eudy, who had been my assistant coach when I played in high school at Brookland Cayce, and asked if I could just come shadow him at a practice. Instead, he offered me a position as an assistant coach.
So you started your career at one of our biggest rivals. What brought you to Heathwood?
When this position came open, Cardinal Newman had just won a state championship and had a lot of strong players returning, so I wasn’t looking to make a move. But USC Head Soccer Coach Mark Berson said I needed to look at the Heathwood job. And I loved the idea of having my own program.
What makes you glad you listed to Coach Berson?
I’ve loved being at Heathwood because of the people, because of the students I’ve been able to get to know, and the parents, and the athletic staff. And I really appreciate being in a place where the culture supports doing things the right way.
What do you like most about coaching?
Paradoxically, I like how removed from the game I am as a coach. Because of the flow of the game, I can’t call plays or take a time-out; I have to just let the guys play. So that puts a heavy emphasis on teaching the right things at practice. But it also means the players get to be themselves, to be creative and problem-solve on their own, without too much steering from their coach.
How, in a nutshell, would you describe your coaching philosophy?
When I first started out, I probably overcoached. I was more tired after games than some of my players were. Over time, I’ve learned to step back and manage rather than continually coaching, and to play a style of soccer that speaks to our kids’ ability and creativity, while also being attack-minded when we go for it, and conservative when we defend. I want the game to be free-flowing, and for the players to be problem-solvers on the field, not just doing what I tell them to do.
This year for the first time you’re coaching both the girls and boys squads. How did that come about, and how, on a nuts-and-bolts level, will that work?
Coaching both teams was my idea. In my time here, I’ve had a lot of respect for some of the female student athletes who came through Heathwood and regretted not being able to coach them. And I want to see that program succeed.
As for how it will work, I’m sure some people have wondered about that, since games are often scheduled so that boys and girls varsity teams play at the same time in different locations. But all the coaches in our region have been very helpful in allowing us to schedule things so this can work. As a result, I’m able to coach both practices and games back-to-back.
One thing that’s always contributed to our boys program’s success is that the kids have been comfortable enough to come talk to me any time they need me. I want both them and the girls to know that kind of open communication is still very much a part of our program’s culture.
What are your goals for each team this year?
For the girls, I’m looking to start a new tradition based on our three keys for them: Opportunity, Pride, Commitment.
After their performance last year, the boys program is going to be viewed differently going forward, not just on our campus, but externally as well. So it’s going to be about recognizing the new expectations for what our standard is. I’m excited because we have a great group of seniors who have mostly been in the program for six years now, and we’re returning 6-8 underclassmen who are ready to contribute a lot.
Speaking of the boys’ performance last year, they obviously exceeded expectations—what do you see as the key to their success?
That team just had an incredible ability to silence critics. Not that people thought we were a bad team, but no one outside the locker room believed we could do what we did, beating Cardinal Newman to make it to the championship game. But inside the locker room, they believed. They were not satisfied with just being another team.
So where do you see the Heathwood program going from here? What are your longer-term goals?
I want 2016 to not be a fluke but rather a steady foundation on which to build—for both the boys and the girls sides.
And more than anything else, I want to see Heathwood’s program continue to produce quality young people. I tell my players that we determine how successful they are as a team three or four years after they finish playing, when they start succeeding on college or grad school, and in life.