Sunday, December 20, 2009

A-11 Story...Chapter 5

Chapter 5

“Homecoming vs. Oakland High - October 5th, 2007”

AFTER WINNING two games in a row in the A-11, first at Trinity, and then playing crisply in our league opener vs. St. Mary’s 21 – 14 at Witter Field in Piedmont; suddenly we found ourselves at home with a respectable record of 2 – 2, and heading into a non-league game vs. Oakland for our Homecoming.

It’s important to note our defense had continued to play exceptionally well under the guidance of our young, bright and dedicated Defensive Coordinator, Kevin Anderson. Our defense was well taught by Coach Anderson, and our experienced Secondary Coach, Anthony Freeman, and our ‘D’ collectively understood they had to carry the additional burden of needing to play well at all times until our new offense stabilized and matured. The A-11 was not yet ready to rack up big numbers and points, and everybody within our program understood that fact. Coupled with the outstanding strength and speed program implemented by Strength Coach, Robert Darden, and each week we continued to hope our team had enough mental and physical toughness to persevere.

If the great feelings and emotions generated by “Winning Games” could somehow be bottled up and sold to the public, that magical elixir would cure cancer and other nasty ailments wreaking havoc on human beings worldwide. Within our football program at Piedmont, the back-to-back A-11 victories did an amazing job of stemming a rebellious flow from within our ranks, a surging that had been slamming at the door with alarming ferocity.

The hate mail from fans, blistering emails and numerous ‘anonymous’ phone calls from football lovers decrying the A-11 had slowed a bit, and for the first time ever we had more coaches, fans and a few members of the media reach out to us in order to learn about our, “crazy offense,” and “radical offense,” or “innovative offense.”

Things were beginning to change, but to lose our Homecoming game vs. a winless and gritty opponent like Oakland High, would be devastating for the players and the program at such a sensitive moment. A loss would instantly drop us several steps down the ladder of credibility and any type of realistic playoff aspirations would vaporize.

As our home stadium filled up with excited fans on that cool October night prior to the kickoff vs. Oakland, I reviewed the basics during my pre-game chat with the football Officials on the field. Because it was a non-league game, I asked the head Official about the tie-breaking system - if our teams happened to be knotted up at the end of regulation.

The Referee shook his white-capped head at me and flatly replied, “Nope. No overtime. It’s a non-league contest, and if your game ends in a tie, then it’s going to stay that way forever…period.”

“OK.” I replied, and I made a mental note of it. A tie would be nearly as bad as a loss.

The possibility of playing Overtime had been eliminated and I continued my business with the Officials and pre-game routine with the team. I wasn’t too concerned with the remote possibility of the game ending in a tie, the only time that had happened in my head coaching tenure, had been in 1995, when my Piedmont team travelled down to the central coast of California and battled Pacific Grove. That night in the balmy seaside hamlet near Carmel, inexplicably, our very good Place-Kicker clearly drilled the game-winning PAT to clinch the win for us on the road in the final seconds of a tough game. But somehow the ‘home-cooking’ Referees standing beneath the uprights signaled that the Extra Point had been missed, and the game ended in a tie! Even though on the game video any observer can easily see our entire JV team standing on the track directly behind the Goal Posts, and they go crazy with delight as our Kicker’s PAT sails through yellow poles for the win! I hate tie games…

After our Homecoming game vs. Oakland got underway, it was blunt from the start that Oakland wanted to show people they could play good football, even though they were winless. The Oakland defense played with urgency and heart, and their Middle Linebacker (#99) was big, fast and unafraid of our two small Quarterbacks pulling double duty in the A-11. The Oakland defense, in their bright blue helmets, white and blue-trimmed uniforms came to win at all costs.

We took the opening kickoff to near midfield and then our first play of the game, “Base Out Stagger 194 Slant” was executed to perfection, our Primary QB George found Menke on the Slant route inside the right hash for a 15-yard gain. Things looked good.

But, one good play does not make a great game, and on our 2nd play, we called a sprint pass right, and QB George was buried for a 10-yard loss – one of the few times he was actually sacked all season. Oakland had quickly captured the game’s momentum and their players on the field and sideline came to life, full of vigor and pride.

I turned to my left and mumbled gruffly to Coach Humphries, “Sheez. This is gonna be a dog fight all night long!”

“Yep.” He smacked.

From that moment on, every person in our football program it was going to be like a Heavyweight Championship fight. Blow after blow would be traded, only to have the outcome decided by the team able to withstand the most amount of punishment; and when all seemed lost, somehow find the willpower to deliver one devastating punch to knock out the opponent.

We were forced to punt the ball after stalling on the opening drive. Oakland got the football inside their own 10-yard line, and proceeded to make their game plan abundantly clear. Run, run, run the ball and then throw it a couple of times to keep our defense honest. Their ground game started to work, coupled with short passes and they methodically drove inside our 20-yard line. But, a crucial scramble and fumble by their shifty QB proved costly, and we recovered the football inside our 15-yard line. Luck makes every coaching staff look good once in awhile.

Our team battled Oakland fiercely but with a few penalties, a dropped pass and an interception by Oakland, we never found our rhythm on offense. Fitful play, bumps and bounces along the way but not the smooth pace we had developed during our last two games in victory. Again, our defense played well, led by some bone-crushing tackles from Linebacker, Keith Reid and Defensive End, Bryce Chu.

We were in the game midway through the 2nd quarter, even though our offense was sputtering. It was the hardest hitting game of that year to date, Oakland was laying thunderous hits on our players, and they were big, quick and fearless. Our team, especially our offense was facing another new test halfway through the season.

Tied at Zero, our offense got the ball near the 50-yard line. We called, “43 Two Right Y Dink Screen.” Secondary QB, Lipkin quickly went in motion to the right and as we had hoped, two Oakland defenders adjusted accordingly. QB George took a quick drop after catching the shotgun snap, and found our rangy Tight End, Bryce Chu for a 16-yard gain down the middle. We had picked up a sliver of momentum and needed to score a touchdown.

On the next play we called for, “Base Out Stagger 18 Rattle.” QB George sprinted out to his right and launched a beautiful 40-yard bomb. WR Joey Andrada sped to the Post, caught the ball and stepped into the end zone for the touchdown.

As they had done throughout the game, Oakland High responded with hard hitting, great athletic moves and some electric plays resulting in scores.

Our hometown crowd had swelled to beyond the stadium capacity of 2,500 after the King and Queen were announced during halftime, while our staff and players made adjustments upstairs above the stadium in the locker room.

We took to the field for the 2nd half, and true to the nature of that night’s game, Piedmont and Oakland continued to trade “Haymakers”, in a wicked, hard-hitting match. Seemingly, time elapsed in the blink of an eye, and with under two-minutes remaining in the game, it was tied 14-14, and Oakland had the football on our side of the 50-yard line. Our defense was tired but determined to win, Oakland’s offense could smell the upset big time, and the snappy retort from the Referee before the game was ringing in my brain, “Nope. No overtime…if your game ends in a tie, then it’s going to stay that way forever. Period.”

During times of stress, great players make amazing plays, sometimes more than once in a short amount of time. Devin Brown, a junior CB and Slot Back was a great player for us; and he came up huge that night for Piedmont.

Oakland High continued to advance the football, and with less than a minute to go, their quarterback fired a bullet to his left. The pass ricocheted into the air and sailed inside our 20-yard line. Devin Brown made a diving interception near our sideline, and gave our team a ray of hope.

With 38-seconds remaining in the game (overtime was not an option), we had the ball on our own 18-yard line, with the score tied at 14, and we had two timeouts left. Our crazed and delirious crowd was going nuts, and for a split-second it was hard for me to catch my breath and think clearly.

As a play-caller, sometimes you get into the ‘zone’, similar to that of the players on the field, when virtually every play you call during crunch time comes up like sweet smelling roses. Being a successful play-caller has to more to do with preparation, experience, working with quality assistant coaches, and having good players more than anything else. But, once in a while it’s beneficial to reach into the Grab Bag and pull out a new or unique play from your offensive cookie jar. I was determined to do just that.

Our sturdy left-footed Place Kicker, Jordan Remer began warming up his leg by kicking some footballs into the practice net on our sideline.

I called the play, “43 Off 151 Rub A-Q” to begin our last drive of the game from our own 18-yard line. The 43 Off formation looks similar to our regular 43 set, but our Slot receivers on the left remain off the line of scrimmage, enabling our team to get into a Quad set to the left. Primary caught the snap and QB George did a quarter-role to his left. He went through his progression of reads: Quick slant (not open), Deeper Slant (not open), Rub Route up the left sideline (not open), and finally to the Delay Flat underneath (not open).

The crowd roared and shrieked with insane anticipation as George scrambled to his left searching desperately for an answer. He pulled up quickly and heaved the football deep and high down the center of the field. Devin Brown made another great play by leaping into the air to make the catch at midfield! Incredibly, we had picked up 32-yards on a single play. I called one of our two timeouts, gathered the offense near our sideline and called, “Base Out 18 Comeback.”

Our offense executed well and Devin Brown made a gigantic play, this time from the Anchor position. He peeled back on a devastating Hunt Block as QB George rolled to the right. Devin timed it perfectly and unleashed the best Hunt Block I’ve seen in my three years of coaching the A-11. The speeding DE for Oakland had our QB directly in his crosshairs and was zeroing in for the kill. But, out of nowhere Devin unloaded a crunching crack back hit that sent the stunned Oakland defender flying and cart wheeling into the air - totally blindsided from the expertly delivered block. Calmly, George moved outside to the right and tossed a dart to Andrada for a beautiful 15-yard gain down to the Oakland 34-yard line.

Andrada displayed poise by stepping out of bounds on our sideline, enabling us to save our final timeout.

Civilized insanity had taken over the crowd and overcome most of the people on our sideline. I did my best to stay calm and called a certain play in hopes of catching Oakland off-guard, “133 Stagger QB Draw Left.” The Oakland defense was spread wide expecting a pass. George fielded the shotgun snap, decoyed the pass action perfectly and our OL opened up a massive hole down the left-center of the field. George took off like a bolt of lightning near the left hash and sprinted to the Oakland 15-yard line before diving forward! Our players had executed the play to perfection and put us into field goal position.

I raced down the sideline and frantically called for our last timeout with 6 seconds to go.

During the time out, Defensive Coordinator, Kevin Anderson spent his time isolated with our Place Kicker, Remer, quietly helping the young man to stay focused and confident.

Regardless of the outcome our kids had fought hard, never given up and had put our team in a position to win the game. I was proud of their effort, resolve and desire to compete.

As both teams returned back to the field, our hometown crowd reached a deafening level of ear-splitting noise. The incredible roar emanating from our fans that moment is the type of wonderful memory I will recall long after my coaching days are over. It’s etched into my psyche.

Our Field Goal unit took their place on each side of our long snapper and our place-kick Holder, Lipkin settled in as well. Oakland High’s defensive front all got down in their three-point stances, ready to spring into action at the snap - hoping to block the kick to preserve the tie.

Remer aligned and steadied himself. He gave a quick nod of his head at Lipkin, signaling that he was ready to go for it.

Our long snapper, Leif Simonson had been outstanding to date, but a touch of the nerves got him a bit rattled and the snap was low, skipping right before Lipkin’s hands in front of the Field Goal Platform. Cool as ice, Lipkin scooped up the football, placed it on the Block and rotated the laces away from the oncoming Remer.

I tensed up like petrified wood, unable to breath, blink or think…nothing to do but watch, hope and pray.

Oakland’s defensive unit gave a mighty push, but our Field Goal platoon held the Fort and did their jobs without error.

With time running out, Remer stepped into his left-footed attempt and kicked the football as if he were trying to launch it into outer space. He absolutely crushed the ball and it blazed through the air, lower than usual but high enough to rise above the outstretched arms of the Oakland High team.

The football screamed through the dark October air, whisked through the Goal Posts and the Officials beneath the Crossbar gave the only signal that everybody rooting for Piedmont was hoping to see – It’s Good!

Piedmont 17 and Oakland 14.

Our players and fans stormed the field like never before.

As the bedlam ensued, the players, coaches and fans celebrated in the beauty of a thrilling victory. Suddenly, we found ourselves at a record of 3 – 2, on a three-game winning streak and feeling good.

Based on the first two weeks of the season, losing the opening games, having our OL coach quit, holding steady to avoid a team mutiny and the searing ire of angry parents, the kids and assistant coaches had managed to triumph on the field three times in a row.

Bounding up the stadium steps through the happy crowd on my way into the locker room to celebrate with the team, a single thought looped through my mind.

“Can we do it again and win next week?”