Saturday, July 25, 2009

A-11 Story....Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Winning Streak Begins in the Trinity Alps – September 22, 2007

IF SOMEBODY had told me that Piedmont would begin a seven-game winning streak in Week Three, on a wet field during a drizzly night in the mountains vs. Trinity High, and it would serve as a launching pad to desperately boost our team’s morale whilst becoming the first victorious step towards Piedmont making the playoffs – well…it would have been difficult to believe them prior to that wonderful night in the hinterlands of northern California.

The game before Trinity, we held our home opener after the Campo debacle, and battled against Truckee High School – a powerhouse Wing-T team, that had won the Nevada state championship twice of the previous three seasons. Due to the incredibly hard work by our players and assistant coaches leading into that Truckee contest, radical X & O adjustments were made by the staff, tons of game video was reviewed, and mutinous actions were thwarted by the outstanding senior leadership of our team captains.

We only lost to Truckee by a final score of a very close 15 – 7. Our defense again played valiant, and we had a chance to tie the game with a few minutes left. Importantly, our Piedmont offense managed to score its first touchdown ever in the A-11, in the 3rd quarter vs. Truckee. Piedmont QB, Jeremy George connected on a nice throw along the right sideline to WR, Joey Andrada. Our fleet WR hauled in the TD pass, and we all felt a massive sense of relief at finally scoring in the A-11.

Before our second game that year, I had the unfortunate experience of losing my offensive line coach – he quit after the Campo game. I respected his decision, and to this day we remain friends, and we root for all things Piedmont related. He is a good man but could not handle his frustration anymore. A-11 co-creator, Steve Humphries had been working with him closely, and Coach Humphries assumed the role of O-Line coach that day.

Several of the players were distraught at losing their O-Line coach, but we handled it above board as best we could before the team capsized. We then closed ranks while trying to move ahead on very shaky ground. The horrible phone calls, emails, and anticipated open questioning in local media kept steamrolling.

One of the most memorable voice mail messages I received was from a gravelly voiced and very pissed off man, who screamed, “A-11! A-11 my a--! A-11 stands for all eleven coaches potentially fired!” Then he slammed down the phone. There’s a joke around town, and to this day I sometimes wonder if that caller was my dad?

Having great administrative support is one of the key factors for any coach to survive the ire of angry, boiling-over parents and players. Unbeknownst to me at the time, our excellent Principal at Piedmont, Randall Booker had been swamped with a plethora of well-intended but firm parents. Folks who were sure the A-11 was the worst football offense ever invented. Two losses in a row to open the season had been enough, and some individuals took the liberty of sitting down with Mr. Booker to show him their “own” offensive systems, proven X’s & O’s that would serve the kids better than the A-11 ever would.

During Week Three sitting at a record of 0 – 2, and prepping for a long road trip game at Trinity, I received a letter from one of the concerned parents. “The Data Letter” from a top notch Scientist in the community, was extremely well written documenting valuable points, and coming to the professional conclusion that more than enough A-11 Data had been collected after only two games – to immediately justify the torching of the A-11 Offense for good, and switching back to a “normal” offense. I disagreed with the Data provided, but respected his right to present his case in a factual and civil manner.

The night before our game vs. Trinity in the stunningly beautiful mountainous retreat of Weaverville, CA, some of my staff and I met the Trinity Coach, Mike Flint for a cold one at the local saloon. Coach Flint is a sturdy, humble man, good humored and had already won a state championship as a coach. He represents everything good in the game of football. He considered planning for his team to play against the A-11 a great challenge, nothing more or less.

In addition to the incredible beauty, the Trinity Alps are known for fantastic Steelhead Trout fishing in the currents of the Trinity River, a robust Logging industry, and terrific Black Bear hunting. In fact, some of the Trinity High football players were set to go Bear Hunting the next morning before our game that night – if my memory serves correct.

Saturday night, standing on the soft, wet, thick grass field at Trinity High, I watched our players warm up in the drizzly cool night air, and I felt unsure about our chances of victory. Trinity was a big, physical Wing-T team, designed to power the football down the field at will. The moist field and wet air had me nervous, we had not yet won a football game in dry conditions, and so winning this game so far from home and in the bad elements had me uptight.

Over the past couple of days leading up to the game, I had sensed a tangible, fierce bite of urgency emanating from the players. They were determined to make the five-hour drive worthwhile, in overall team experience, and especially by winning the game on the field.Even with the slick field and moistened footballs during warm ups, our Two starting quarterbacks were zinging the pigskin around as if they were playing on dry blacktop.

In the swirl of uneasiness leading up to kickoff, the QB’s pre-game efficiency notched confidence into my heart. “Maybe, we are going to get our first win tonight,” I remember thinking at the kickoff.

We returned the opening kickoff with an electric jolt up the middle by shifty Devin Brown all the way to the Trinity 35-yard line. Trinity’s red and gray clad defense came out jumpy and strong, playing a 3-2 front against our A-11, and often blitzing the Weak or Strong outside Linebackers - sometimes both.

But, from our first play on offense, it was clear to each member of our staff, the Piedmont players had taken big steps in mastering the A-11, and had grown exponentially after only two weeks removed from the Campo fizzle. The offensive line looked confident, both of our starting QB’s were crisp, and the WR’s were really busting to get open on pass routes. We were becoming a different team; and appeared to be capable and ready to win against a very physical opponent.

On the opening drive, Primary QB Jeremy George fired a few short passes out wide on quick screens, while our tandem QB, Ryan Lipkin helped secure the pass protection with the OL. For the first time, the offense was beginning to dictate the tempo and pressure of the game, and for the first time that season, our opponent was somewhat not quite sure of themselves on defense. The number one axiom of the A-11 was beginning to cement itself permanently, “The ball moves faster than the man,” was proving to be the keystone principle of the system.On 4th down, secondary QB Lipkin connected on a searing Slant Route to our Left Anchor, Rory Bonnin on, “133 Stagger 293 Slant Corner.” Bonnin hauled in the bullet and rumbled to the Trinity 10-yard line. We misfired on the next two plays and Trinity held tough, but we kicked the chip shot field goal, and had achieved another milestone in the A-11, we had scored some points on the opening drive of a game and were up 3 – 0.

Trinity pounded the ball on offense in their stout Wing-T, and kept our defense off balance a bit. We got the ball back eventually, and proceeded to move it again. Our wise Wide Receivers Coach, Mario Thornton was beginning to notice that we could probably take advantage of a deep Fade or Go route down the right sideline to our then sophomore fleet Receiver, Joey Andrada. We took a few shots down the wet field, and on 3rd down called, “331 Creep 18 Two Screen Left.” Primary QB George sprinted right, decoyed the defense his way, while our other QB Lipkin engaged in a dummy block, then slipped left unfettered and caught the lofty screen pass from George. Lipkin scampered down the left sideline for 15-yards and we tacked on another field goal.Trinity continued to pound and slam the ball on offense and we missed a few golden opportunities to put additional points on the board with the A-11.

After halftime, we found ourselves down 6 – 14, but our defense stiffened and forced Trinity to punt the football. Their Punter skied a beauty in the drizzly air and Rory Bonnin fielded the kick at our own 33-yard line.

If a person coaches football long enough and takes part in many games, there comes a time at a few points during their careers when they are fortunate enough to witness a “Turning Point” in a season – not only a ‘Game Changing’ play, but a sparkling and magnificent event that transforms an entire season. Bonnin’s incredible, gutty punt return saved the game for us that night, and instantly became the pivot point that turned our season from - a losing struggle into a hot winning streak.

Bonnin (a star Rugby player) secured the football in his right arm and dashed up field. On soggy turf – he turned into a Mudder and never looked back. He weaved to his right, sprinted down the right sideline in front of our entire team jumping up and down for joy, and then somehow cut back left and bolted down the center of the field for a 67-yard touchdown! QB George added a nice toss to Captain Alexander Menke in the left corner of the end zone for a two-point play, and suddenly the game was tied 14 – 14…we had hope!

The next 12-minutes of football were classic gridiron moments. Trinity would drive a portion of the field but our defense stood the test, and vice-versa. But as we arrived at the midway point of the 4th Quarter, our quarterbacks coach Pete Schneider concurred with Coach Thornton’s insistence on throwing the Bomb one more time.With six minutes to go in the game and the score tied at 14, we called, “Base Out Stagger 194 Slant.”

Trinity’s defense had been rolling the dice and blitzing 6 or 7 players every so often, and this time we caught them in it. Our two inside slot receivers ran Slant Routes, and the Strong Safety to our QB’s right side had to step down and cover the Slant. George read the Cover Zero perfectly and found the speedy Andrada in single coverage way down the right sideline. Due to the slickness of the ball and the heavy defensive pressure, the deep pass was slightly underthrown, Andrada’s panicked defender overran the play.

Joey adjusted and came back under the pass, caught it and sprinted into the end zone alone for the winning score, 20 – 14!

God Almighty could not have ripped that first victory from the determined hands of our Piedmont players from that moment onward. Our very stingy defense played the last few minutes of the game like a bunch of crazed maniacs and nailed down the first win of the season for our team, and the first win ever for the A-11 Offense.

As the last few seconds of the clock wound down, I turned to my right and peered at the brigade of gleeful parents sitting in the tiny bleachers. I listened to our small band of parents that had made the five-hour trek into the mountains. They were jumping for joy while giving the homegrown signal of our offense that the staff used to communicate on the sidelines with the players. The parents were touching the points of their fingers and forming the letter ‘A.’ All of them were shouting, “A-11, A-11!”

When the game ended, the players leaped with delirious pride and relief, and they doused me in a shower of Gatorade on that frigid night in the Trinity Alps. But, I never felt more warmth and happiness envelope me after a football game, as that icy fluid soaked me from head to toe. With watery eyes triggered by elation for our Piedmont players and everybody attached to our program, I gave Steve Humphries a bear hug and congratulated him, and did the same thing to the assistant coaches and players.

Inside the visitor’s locker room at Trinity, the boyish joyfulness spilling out from the players and coaches was remarkable to behold. Soon thereafter, we were all on the team bus and headed back the hotel for a post-game pizza party, and to watch the DVD replay of the great game we had just experienced.

With a hoarse voice, raspy from delight, I auto-dialed the number of Piedmont Principal Randall Booker, and hoped that he would answer the phone that late on a Saturday night.

It rang, and then I heard his voice ask, “What happened?”

“Listen to this,” I replied, and then I held up my cell phone towards the back of the bus.

Without missing a beat, the entire team shouted with all of their might, and clearly sent Mr. Booker the only answer he really wanted to hear, “We won! We won!”

The teams’ synchronized cheer echoed throughout the bus.

I closed my eyes and tried to soak up every moment of the excellent night.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A-11 Story...Chapter 3

Chapter 3

“A-11 Makes its Debut on September 7, 2007 - The Nightmare in Moraga vs. Campolindo!”

IMAGINE the worst outcome that could overwhelm your greatest effort to try and ensure a reasonable or respectable modicum of success for a radical new venture…and then quadruple it.

On the team bus early that evening weaving through the beautiful rolling hills and trees of the Moraga Canyon towards Campolindo High School, every player and coach onboard was understandably excited, but brutally nervous, more than all of us anticipated. Truthfully, we were collectively worried about running the A-11 for the first time, but more importantly, we fully realized Campolindo was a big, fast and powerful football team, and very well coached. It was a daunting task at hand.

Looking back in review of our 2007 football training camp prior to Campolindo, we’d made a good decision to bring in the key football Referees from our region to educate them about the A-11, and to get their vital feedback regarding shifting, motions and a few nuances. It was important for us to get the Referees on the same page, in terms of prepping their crews to properly officiate the A-11 come game time.

However, in retrospect I made a significant mistake asking our players, coaches and parents to try and keep the A-11 a ‘secret’ until the Campo game. It was my hope the element of surprise would offer some advantage for our team…I was dead wrong. In fact, it made things a bit worse by putting additional pressure on our players and assistant coaches, and accidentally ratcheting up the drama within our Piedmont community. Campolindo and Piedmont are lovely towns, only separated by a casual 20-minute drive through the Tunnel, and they share affinities.
I should have officially let the word out that Piedmont would be trying a new offense like the A-11; it would have reduced the pain of the stinging loss to Campo for the kids, assistant coaches and parents. Instead, it was a humiliating blow that I should have seen coming, regardless of my hopes. Campo knew what we were doing well enough – word had traveled.

In the locker room after our pre-game warm up, the tension in the air was making things almost unbearable. It was muggy enough, and I had already asked the players to do an incredible amount giving on behalf of the program by switching to the A-11. Seeds of doubt from certain players and an assistant coach had become emerging stalks of serious misgivings.

At sunset, soon after the opening kickoff our Piedmont A-11 Offense took the field, and that’s when the surreal terror on offense began. (Our defense played well that night and Campolindo called off the dogs midway through the 3rd quarter or it could have been worse).
Respectfully to the players and assistant coaches, we had done a lot of work creating, tweaking and practicing the virgin A-11 system throughout the spring and summer, that most of us believed we were ready to unveil the A-11 and have some success.

Disaster! And, all of it was my fault – 100%.

Our offensive players were so spread out across the field of play, naked-like in their ultra wide A-11 formations – it was a major shock to see them actually competing live vs. an opponent under the lights. Just the simple act of looking at them on the field like that was difficult to soak in, especially after having spent the past twenty-one years being a traditional football coach.

Campo was going full-speed ahead, comfortable and confident in their system, and kicking our butts on the artificial turf. Their navy blue, red and white uniforms seemed like a tidal wave of colors overwhelming our white and purple uniformed players. Again, our Piedmont players were giving it their all to succeed, and their shortcomings were zero fault of their own. The errant timing and poor relationship of the plays (too east and west), the offbeat spacing and shoddy performance was totally my fault. I had miscalculated the scope of the project. I had not adjusted our methods of practicing differently quite enough, to fully compensate for the awkward foreign football geometry in the blood and guts operating system of the A-11 in a game situation.

Assistant coach (A-11 Co-creator) Steve Humphries, and the other coaches on our sideline were fully engaged in the game, while doing their best to plug the internal team wounds of dissention, and halt the ebbing of our total chemistry.

But, the debacle unfolded without respite. At halftime, I had one of the JV assistant coaches lead the team into the locker room so they could rest and begin regrouping, while I held a quick meeting with the Varsity coaches at the southern end of the field.

I looked around the tree-lined stadium venue and saw hordes of people having a great time over by the snack shack. I watched with chills crawling up my spine, as our football program’s greatest benefactor actually marched through the crowd and stormed out of the stadium shaking his head with disgust – obviously he had seen enough for now.

“F---!” Steve Humphries said, “We’ve gotta lot of work to do.”

All of the coaches agreed, except for one, our Offensive Line Coach. He was not a supporter of the A-11. However, regardless of his opinion about our offense, he was a great guy then, and is a great guy now. Sometimes, terrible situations simply get the best of people.
Our OL coach was cursing up a tornado in our gathering and was beyond reach at that moment. He made it clear that he did not know if he could make it through the entire game without losing it.

“Damage control, we must help the kids get through the game with some pride.” I said.

Back inside the locker room the players were scattered about, listless, sad, a few crying, and at least two pods of players shooting looks of anger at anybody looking their way. Who could blame them? Not me, it wasn’t their ill doing. They had done what I had asked, and I had failed them.
We only had a couple of minutes remaining before we had to return to the field for the 2nd half.
The staff and I focused our attention on helping the players stay tuned on “getting better” and “not giving up.”
Regardless, it was self-evident; tonight was not going to be a fun event.

Several of the players pounded their fists against the visiting team’s lockers and screamed at the top of their lungs, trying to release their frustration and anger without hurting anyone else.
Before going back to the field, I took a quick walk outside and around the corner from the locker room. Hoping not to be seen, I proceeded to spew vomit into a barrel trashcan nearby. I was sweating profusely and deserved every ounce of ill feelings and mocking sent my way.
Jogging back to the stadium through the Campolindo campus, our players and coaches came out fighting for our collective pride that had been shredded but was hanging by a thread. Watching our players continually battle throughout the 2nd half and never giving up was a testimony to their maturity, camaraderie and dedicated work.

We had begun the game hoping to achieve a stunning upset of powerful Campolindo. We ended the game scrapping, clawing and using every ounce of strength and vigor – simply to just get a few meager 1st downs in the A-11.

Our dreams of success had been reduced to desperate prayers of football salvation.

Final Score: Campolindo - 31 and Piedmont - 2.

After the game in the darkened parking lot. I leaned against the team bus, sick to my stomach, with a splitting migraine and wanting to wake up from the nightmare in Moraga. I was grateful to have such a great group of players, and equally thankful for the wonderful army of assistant coaches helping our team get through this catastrophe.
I waited quietly by our bus, as each player filed onto the idling diesel that would take us home.

One of my longtime friends and her husband had flown in from Hawaii to visit her family and also see our game. “It will get better, it’s just the first game.” She said, before they had to go.
I nodded and thanked them both for coming. “It must,” I replied, and I got on the bus.