Saturday, June 4, 2011

A-11 Story...Chapter 6

Chapter 6

“Sweating It…Without Our #1 Quarterback vs. John Swett in Crockett”

NOVEMBER 2nd, 2007: Many things had been going well for six consecutive weeks. Incredibly, our determined Piedmont football team had notched three gutty wins vs. Trinity, St. Mary’s, and Oakland High (Homecoming), and then managed to rattle off three more victories vs. Albany, Kennedy and Moreau.

After starting the season with an 0 – 2 record, and weathering a hurricane of nasty and humiliating emails, phone calls and letters, and the surprise visits and urgent meetings with parents and some community icons wanting to ‘save’ the football program, and after our OL coach had quit…through it all and much more, the unselfish behavior amongst our coaches and players had paid massive dividends…sweet returns like nothing I’d ever witnessed in more than two decades of coaching football up to that point in time.

After our victory vs. St. Mary’s had brought our record to 3 – 2, the irate phone calls and harsh emails began giving way to an increasing stream of well-wishers, happy to voice their ardent support during phone calls and via email. A growing number of curious visitors and some media personnel began to materialize or float around our practices and games, and a throng of eager supporters were suddenly shouting words of praise on behalf of the Piedmont football program.

“A-11” was no longer considered a swearword around town; it had somewhat become a beacon of hope for the Little Guy, like Piedmont.

Our Piedmont team had built up a record of 6 – 2 and we’d already clinched a winning season! Imagine that? Even if we proceeded to lose the final two games of the season, we would finish no worse than a record of 6-4. Not bad at all.
But, entering our 9th game of the year at John Swett, we were undefeated in league play, and about to play a Swett team that came into the contest with a deceiving record of 3-4, their earlier stinging 24-21 loss to powerhouse Salesian, a (10-2) team that had cost them dearly.

On that crisp November night in Crockett amidst the charming old brick buildings and rustic homes along the shores of the Carquinez Straits, and behind the vaunted C&H Sugar Mill Factory, the awful gopher-holed and lumpy grass football field overshadowed by the looming Carquinez Bridge nearby was the least of my worries.

Each week our Piedmont team overcame a bevy of unique distractions and obstacles to succeed, and as every coach knows, winning often is never easy. For this battle against a big and physical hard-nosed Swett team, we would not only have to withstand their fierce power I and Double Wing rushing attack, led by their remarkable Running Back, Mark Anderson, but IF we were going to escape with our 7th straight victory of the season, we would have to accomplish that feat without our star primary quarterback, Jeremy George.

In our previous week’s victory vs. Moreau Catholic, Jeremy had suffered a painful pulled hip-flexor muscle, but he had finished the contest. However, during the week of practice leading up to the Swett game, it became evident he would need to sit out and rest for one game. Instead of sulking, Jeremy emerged as a strong leader, smallish in stature but monumental in his resolve and great athletic ability. He became like another coach on the field during that week of practice, tutoring his counterpart Ryan Lipkin, a senior. Lipkin was solid, eager and confident, ready to make full use of his attributes as the newly installed primary QB in the two-quarterback A-11 system, instead of being the usual starter next to Jeremy as the secondary QB.

After warm-ups on the porous football field, our Piedmont team jogged gingerly across the turf towards the visitor’s locker room, each player hoping not to Frog an ankle.

Jeremy George glanced over at me before scuttling ahead and quipped, “Lipkin is ready.” I nodded and prayed to God that Jeremy’s assessment was correct.
Perched on a hilly street behind a chain-link fence about 25-feet above the Northwest corner of the end zone were some of the John Swett Indians faithful “adult” football fans.

They had staked a claim at their usual spot outside the stadium confines. They had their folding chairs out, the BBQ was smoking away, and the hardy group was having a good time drinking booze prior to kick-off. I’ve always admired the Blue Collar ‘hard hat’ football communities in towns that I’ve visited across the nation. And, this rowdy group of about a dozen Swett fans easily put to shame the two old geezers that used to sit up in the balcony and hurl insults down at everybody else during that great classic television show, “The Muppets.”

The verbal downpour from the Swett crew struck without warning, “You suck Piedmont! A-11 is garbage! We...are…gonna…kick your butts all night! You guys are a buncha wimps…don’t even bother coming back out for the game, it’s already over! Piedmont is for p----! That’s right…keep running away, and I’m talking to you too…coach!”

I lagged behind the rest of our team, smirked and kept jogging. But, after another barrage of quality insults rained down upon us, I peeked up at the raucous group as I shuffled by.

Our heckler was a woman!

She was standing up, a tad wobbly and peering down at us through the fence while clutching a beer can and a cigarette in one hand. I winked at her and chuckled on my way toward the locker room. A split-second later I heard that lady cut loose with a hearty booming laugh and for obvious reasons it relaxed my spirit just a bit.
To open the game we kicked off the ball to Swett, and I breathed a sigh of relief when their star, Mark Anderson did not return it for a touchdown. Our excellent defense played stout, we got the ball back and our offense began the game with excellent field position at our own 45-yard line.

We came out in a basic I formation set, with our Tight End to the right, and a receiver to each side. Lipkin got under the Center, took the snap and did a quick three-step drop.

We had the perfect play called, “Pro I 93 Pitch,” but Lipkin’s pass was a tad low. Our Flanker, Kyle Bonecum caught the 5-yard hitch route but his left knee touched the ground during the catch. Therefore, when Bonecum tossed the football back to Elliot, our Tailback sprinting all alone down the right sideline, it was negated because Bonecum had already been ruled down, a game of inches.

Two plays later, I made a yucky call after we had switched into our A-11 Offense, a Flare Pass from our secondary quarterback/running back, the excellent Jamel Freeman, to Lipkin out of our 43 formation. I was hoping to catch Swett off-guard, in retrospect, it was a cruddy move. The throw was ruled a backward pass, Swett recovered the bouncing ball deep in our own backfield and they were in business…my bad. Luckily, we caught a break and our great defense held.

Our offense took the field in the A-11 at our own 10-yard line and Jamel Freeman began the drive with a nifty 9-yard draw up the middle. Lipkin completed a short pass and we had some momentum. Good God, the Swett players were big, very big and strong. Another nice run by Jamel, then Lipkin completed a middle screen pass to our TE, Bryce Chu who was aligned at the ‘right guard’ spot in our 43 formation and suddenly we were on the move. Maybe Jeremy George had been right, maybe Lipkin was ready? Well, we suffered a penalty and had to quick kick punt from our A-11 set, luckily one of the great benefits of the A-11.

Swett got the ball at their own 30-yard line, and on their first play of the drive, their QB handed the ball off to #22, Mark Anderson, he dashed to the right and then bolted down the right sideline.

“Damn! He’s a beautiful runner, look at him go!” I uttered, as I watched helplessly, and Anderson ripped off a 45-yard gain before being pushed out of bounds. The Swett team and their fans were going nuts. Several plays later, Swett gave the ball to their fullback, #2 and soon we found ourselves down by seven-points after their extra point was good.

We returned the Swett’s kick off and our offense took the field in the A-11, spreading out the big Swett defense was our only chance of success. As the game moved into the 2nd Quarter, Lipkin grew more comfortable and completed a perfect Wheel route to Rory Bonin up the right sideline on our “18 Attack” play.

Lipkin connected on a few more passes and we had the ball 1st and Goal inside the Swett 10-yard line. We switched into our basic I formation set, Lipkin aligned under the Center but the snap exchange did not go well, and Swett recovered our fumble inside their own 8-yard line. Even though it was nearing halftime, the Swett coach made the same call I would have made in that situation, he told his quarterback to take the snap, turn around and give it to # 22. The incredible running back took the handoff and dashed down the right side again, before being ushered out of bounds at the 50-yard line. Swett ran off a few more plays and they found themselves on 4th down and with the ball on our 25-yard line.

As they had done all year long, our defense stood the test and tackled their quarterback shy of the first down.

Our A-11 offense took the field at our own 21-yard line, with no timeouts and 48-seconds remaining in the first half. Lipkin needed to come up Aces and that’s exactly what he did. He sprinted out to his right and scanned the field for an open receiver on “18 Scramble.” Lipkin fired a dart to our outstanding sophomore wide out, Joey Andrada, who entered the game with a badly sprained ankle but Joey refused to sit that night because Jeremy was already scratched from the lineup. Andrada caught the deep comeback route from Lipkin and teetered near our sideline. The Swett defensive backs near Joey thought he was going to step out of bounds to stop the clock, but Andrada showed great moxie by pivoting inside and then cutting back out wide. Andrada took off for the end zone like he’d been shot out of a cannon, and he bolted down the field for a 79-yard touchdown as our team and tiny brigade of visiting fans jumped for the heavens. Andrada crossed into the end zone in the northwestern corner of the field in plain view of the “Blue Collar” Swett fans poised on the hill outside that edge of the stadium. Tie game at the half.

Swett kicked the ball off to us to begin the 2nd half and Lipkin went back to work in the A-11. Short passes and quick runs, a little toss to Devin Brown, and again we are deep inside Swett territory. Interception, Swett’s football 1st and Ten. Swett drove but then our defense returned the favor and intercepted a pass. We got the football back and Lipkin started firing again.

A couple of quick passes and a scamper, and then Lipkin found two-way starter, and Team Captain, Alexander Menke on a sizzling slant route from the Swett 25-yard line, on the play, “331 Stagger 193 Slant Corner.” Menke caught the hard pass in stride, cut inside and scored, 14 – 7 Piedmont, deep into the 3rd.

We kicked off to Swett after we scored, but somehow the football found its way into the hands of #22, Mark Anderson. About 11-seconds later, the score was tied 14 – 14, after Anderson took it to the house en route to a 90-yard return for a touchdown. Their Place-Kicker’s extra point had clunked on top of the Crossbar and tumbled through during a great, hard fought football game.

There’s a saying I learned from Tim Landis when I was working on his staff as the Wide Receivers Coach at St. Mary’s College (Moraga, CA). Tim is a close friend of mine and an outstanding person and excellent college head football coach. His saying was, “Tough times don’t last but tough people do.”

Lipkin proved that motto to the bone on our ensuing drive, and at a crucial time when our team needed it most. Lipkin proceeded to lead our A-11 Offense on a long drive full of runs, hits, passes and moves unlike anything he’d shown all year. Twice during that drive Lipkin got absolutely steamrolled by a much bigger Swett defender, but Lipkin resurrected each time without fail. As the 3rd quarter wound down, and from the Swett 30-yard line, Lipkin snaked a quick pass into the left flat to Alexander Menke. Menke caught the pass behind a sturdy wall of four blockers from our 43 set and he galloped down the left sideline heading for a score.

As a longtime football coach, prior to each game I always say a prayer and ask God to please keep our players and the other team’s players safe from harm during the game. However, what I witnessed next was easily one of the most revolting and deliberate things I’ve ever seen on the football field. At Swett’s 15-yard line, the Swett Free Safety reached out with both of his hands and grabbed Menke’s facemask. Both feet of Swett’s Free Safety came off the ground as Menke’s head, then his neck, and then his entire body and feet were also ripped into the air and back around to his right. A sickening and terrifying sight to behold. Menke went flying out of bounds and landed near the 11-yard line, with the Swett Free Safety still holding onto his cage!

“Menke’s paralyzed, Oh my God!” was the only thought racing in my mind. Please get up, Alex.

Bullish and miraculously, Menke popped up quickly, ignored the Swett Free Safety and hustled back to his offensive teammates. Yellow flags flew but I wanted an ejection of that Swett player, Menke could have been killed or crippled on purpose for life.
Normally, I pride myself on treating the Officials with great respect and I usually try to kill them with kindness 99% of the time, in hopes of getting a call to help our team when we need it.

Not this time…I went ape, crazy, hopping mad, loud and whacked out, nuts. berserk on every Official and the Referee without mercy, “Throw that player out of the game now! Chuck him out right now! Why wait for another incident? Throw him out now, now, now, now, now, now! Right noooooowwwwwww!”

I worked my way down the sideline near the Heckler’s corner of the field. Bless that woman, because even that woman and the rest of her group understood the gravity of the situation. There was no jeering at all from them regarding what everybody in the stadium had just seen.

The Referee marked off the flagrant infraction, talked with me for a moment and then play resumed. Our offense scored the final go-ahead touchdown on a nice little Dive play by Keith Reid, and we took the lead 21 – 14. Eventually, the Swett head football coach ordered his Free Safety sit out of the game for a few plays to cool off, a noble gesture indeed.

The difficult, entertaining and extremely hard fought game seesawed back and forth, but our defense held tough and we came away from the Swett game with a much deserved 21 – 14 win.

At the far end of the field away from Heckler’s Hill, I huddled our team in a semi-circle after the game and reaped huge amounts of praise on them for a job well done.
“You guys have won seven straight games! We’ve got a record of seven and two, and now you guys have earned the right to play for the League title next week vs. St. Patrick’s! That’s incredible guys, truly amazing after what we’ve all been through together!”

The team and assistant coaches erupted with joy, high fives and bear hugs after a great night.

Several minutes later, after helping to gather gear and greet some of our Piedmont fans, I walked across the field towards the visitor’s locker room, and with the dispersing crew of Heckler’s Hill to my right. I looked up at them and the female heckler appeared from behind a van. She raised her beer can at me and she gave me a slow nod of her head in a silent toast.

I smiled at her and waved goodbye, “Playoffs?” I thought, “Can we make it to the playoffs?”