Game three was a crapshoot, which team was going to show up? The youth football team that steamrolled to a 54-20 win in game one or the mistake filled team that stumbled in a loss in game two? We had a good week of practice as we compressed our already small playbook and a lineup that took two of our best athletes off the field. The starting lineup all week were kids we could depend on being there to the last snap. I didn’t make a big deal about it, it wasn’t even mentioned. This is the continuing story of my “Worst to First” youth football coaching experience in Reno, Nevada this year. This is the pilot season that was shot for the reality television show “Worst to First” I took an eighth grade team that had won about six games in the last six years to the Semi-Finals in the largest and most competitive league in the Reno/North Nevada area
Our opponent was a team our team had tied the previous year. Based on that, they couldn’t be very good right? They had won their first game by over 30 points and they had a bye in week two. We had no film because again in this league you aren’t allowed to film your opponents and the team they played in week one wasn’t going to give us the film, because we played them later in the season.
This opponent was the same team with the same coaching staff from last year so I was told to expect a very physical game. New Valleys would run some standard “I” Formation power football with a good dose of play action out of a variety of “I” sets. Defensively you just never know what a team will come out in against our offense. They had a bye the previous week so I rightfully assumed they had attended our second game loss and got an eyeful. I didn’t spend a lot of time watching New Valleys warm up. They appeared to be big, with reasonable slashing speed, but no real big play open field take it the distance type threats.
In pregame our opponent did us a huge favor, the poked the bear in the cage. New Valleys walked past our team from the practice area to the stadium all in a nice two abreast line with their fancy gear bags tossed over their shoulders. As they approached our squad along a curved paved pathway, they confidently stared down our team in silence. As they passed by, they went into some team choreographed chants about how they would dominate us, an attempt to intimidate a long suffering team. If you are coaching youth football, don’t do that, it’s unsportsmanlike and usually just makes your opponent more focused.
What a stroke of luck, the moment they started chanting, I halted everything we were doing. I told the kids to take off their helmets watch and remain silent. As a group we turned around to face them and just stared back in silence. This all took about 60 seconds as New Valleys had to line up to get through the gate to the stadium. After they had stopped chanting, I stood silent for another 10-15 seconds for effect. This was just the spark our Sparks Railroader team needed.
While I’m NOT the rah-rah type who makes the big pre-game speeches, this week I would. With a red face and probably neck veins expanded to full capacity, I told the kids the team they were playing had probably seen last weeks game on film and was confident they were going to do what they usually do to a Sparks team, blow us out. Then I talked about how hard we had worked and how far we had come as a team. No one had worked harder than us and we deserved respect. However no one was going to give us respect, we had to earn it, I used the word take it. They had the choice, they could keep being that team that got bullied every season or they could be the bully themselves. It was going to be their choice and that choice was going to be made in about five minutes.
It was apparent our kids were determined and fired up to play this game. This wasn’t any false bravado or rah-rah stuff, just a look of purpose and even some quiet anger in their faces. After we entered the field late and got through the coin toss my last minute instructions were: be physical, play fast and play to the whistle. Those kids couldn’t WAIT to get on the field, everyone was bursting at the seams, even the backups.
We kicked off and just missed getting the onside kick. New Valleys recovered and tried to bully us with the inside running game. On a fourth and two from the 50, they just missed converting. We put together a 12 play drive and scored. Our onside kick failed and they took over near midfield but again failed on a fourth and one, this time trying to hit the home run on a play action pass, they just missed hitting the Fullback on an arrow route. Our kids were playing hard and gang tackling with vengeance.
As we drive the ball on our second possession, New Valleys was in all-blitz mode. They were in a 4-4 stack and sending four linebackers from different angles every time. We had obviously frustrated them in that first 12 play scoring drive. This time we speeded up the pace a bit and with nothing fancy scored on a five play drive. As our starting offense came off the field, the kids were saying how chippy the other team was. New Valleys was clearly getting very frustrated by a team they thought they would dominate.
The floodgates were now about to open in biblical proportions like the cloudburst of the Noah flood. We missed our onside kick, but again were able to stop them on a fourth and short at midfield. They arrogantly kept going for it on fourth down, assuming we were just getting lucky early. On our third drive New Valleys now had everyone up, they were clearly agitated. Their kids were being chippy, mouthy and hitting late. Not only were they sending all four Linebackers on every snap, now they had their Corners and even their Safety within four yards of the line of scrimmage. Play action time right? Or Screen?
Our kids were playing confident and physical so instead of optimizing the play to the defense, we just ran the same power off-tackle play with a handful of adjustment tags. The goal was to score quickly and completely demoralize New Valleys. We scored in four plays, this time with our former starting Quarterback who was in to give our now starter (starting both ways and the kicker) a quick breather. Our offense was going very fast now, lining up and running a play within five seconds of when the referee spotted the ball ready to play. It was a full blitzkrieg the likes no one in Reno had seen before.
It gets better, we executed a near perfect onside kick and get the ball. On the first play from scrimmage with everyone from the defense within four yards of the line of scrimmage and crashing down, we run a weakside counter play with an outside tag. We logged the Defensive End with our Blocking Back, sealed the Outside Linebacker to the inside with our Fullback and got enough of the Corner with our pulling Guard to make the play a winner. The perfect play call, we scored in one play. We are now up 26-0 and our opponent I could feel was in full time desperation mode. On defense I immediately moved into a Cover Three mode as we were shutting down their run game without needing the help of our Monster in the inverted Cover Two approach we had been using as our base. On first down, New Valleys throws a play action pass to their tall wideout right into the teeth of our coverage. We intercept and promptly take the ball back for a score with several bone crushing oh my goodness blocks leading the way.
The score was now 32-0 with just over 2 minutes left to go in the first quarter. We had just scored 20 points in the span of 28 seconds. A touchdown, onside kick, touchdown and now interception return for a score in successive plays. It was like some type of medieval slaughter of a village where no living thing was spared. Our kids had played that first quarter in a focused frenzy of physicality.
We started filtering in some of the nonstarters in and scored again to make it a surprising 40-0 with over 9:00 left to go before halftime. Now we went into full backup mode and got all of our nonstarters plenty of playing time. The wild thing is the backups were feeding on the confidence and physicality of our starters, they couldn’t wait to get into the feeding frenzy. The final would be a very merciful 46-6 over a team that would end up just missing the playoffs.
The positives were; we didn’t have any turnovers, we created two turnovers, we were physical, we had just a single penalty and everyone finished. There were lots of smiles after this one from our players, but we still had a few problems brewing under the surface. Our former starting Quarterback had been moved to Safety on defense and had only carried the ball three times, he scored on two of them. Our backup Fullback who would normally have carried the ball four-five times in a game like this got just a single carry. They were both starting on defense but weren’t happy, neither were their parents. Our passing game was nonexistent.
Meanwhile all the backup Backs saw the ball and even some of the non-striped Linemen got carries. The message was clear, we were going to reward those we could trust no matter the outcome. The outcome had been great, without those kids and I couldn’t have been more pleased.