Continued from Part 2 – if you didn’t read it – follow this link –
I saw in our boys eyes as we walked the field that they were focused and ready to play, and I saw that Avalon was looking past us. Some of them were snickering at our size and numbers. I know they were glad to see two of our seniors on crutches. I decided to do something that day that I had never done before. It was a spur of the moment thing, but I really believe that it made the mental difference in the game.
I had our team sit down on a bench and watch the host Lancers as they went through their stretches and warm ups. My players were antsy to get going themselves. They were a little confused because we had never, ever done this. I’m sure they were nervous as we looked at the size of some of their kids. I know I was! The Eagles suited out 11 players that day. The Lancers had 24. Their average kid was 191 pounds, ours was 156. They had no freshmen play in the game, we started two, each way.
Remember, I said yesterday that I thought the most important key to beating Avalon was winning the mental game. And here we were, focused and in the right mind, watching a team that was NOT focused. We were winning the mental toughness game sitting on that bench watching the opponents warm up. One of our kids pointed it out to me, as I was sitting their watching them right when we first got there. He gave me the idea actually. He said “Coach, those kids aren’t ready are they? We got these guys Coach.” Boom! Right there, at least one of my players showing the mental edge I was looking for, and planning for for months! I thought to myself “If this kid sees this, I need all of the others to also.” That’s when I made the decision to sit down and watch them.
What we saw were kids screwing around basically. Kids throwing the football around during stretches. Others yelling at them to stop. We saw a team that wasn’t on one page. We saw a team that wasn’t dressed for the game yet. We saw some kids just laying there on the ground, while others stretched. We saw a little bit of chaos. I remember seeing one kid eating a breakfast burrito right there on the field!
Remember yesterday I gave one definition of mental toughness: coping better than your opponents with the many demands that are placed on you as an athlete. Sitting there on the bench, I reminded our kids of that. I said out loud “Who is coping better right now with the pregame jitters? Who is coping better right now at preparing for this game?” I was sending a mental message to our kids that they were in a better mental state of mind.
The other part of the definition from yesterday which I reminded our kids of as we sat there watching our opponents prepare: to be more consistent and better than your opponent in remaining determined, focused and confident under pressure. I asked our kids if we had that edge, and they said yes! So, I told them to go get stretched out and win this game!
It was a tough game. It was a back and forth game, and one of the most stressful of my career! Why? We were simply outmanned, and I knew it. We gave up 40 pounds per player on average! We had three freshman starting on the offensive side of the ball! Three! We were playing for a League Championship, the first at our school in eight years. Both teams were 2-0 in League, and I just knew that with the remaining games on the schedule, this game would determine the League Championship. It was stressful because we were mainly a running team, but we knew coming in to this game that we MUST throw the ball to win! And the weather didn’t make that easy on us. (We eventually threw for more yards than we rushed for for the first time in 5 years!!)
At half time, we were down by 2 points, 22-20. Avalon usually got better as the game went on, so there was cause for concern. I didn’t want our kids folding up their tents and packing for home, because traditionally at this school, that was their reputation. They didn’t like to fight for much when the going got tough, they just weren’t that mentally tough.
(I’ll never forget in my first year there talking about beating our cross town rival, and one kids said “Coach, stop talking about beating them, we always lose to them, not going to change this year!” And the rest of the kids started laughing. If they only believed, we would’ve won. That rival beat us on the last play of the game in a shootout! Our kids were blown away we almost won.)
Well, we come out to start the second half and on our first drive, we give up a safety, and Avalon has all of the momentum. Would our kids fold now? We were down 24-20 at about the midway point through the third quarter.
We scored towards the later part of the third quarter on a long pass by our frosh quarterback to our only other freshman playing. That put us up for the first time in the game, 26-24. We opted to go for two because we didn’t want to kick in the rainy conditions.
With about 4 minutes left in the game, we had to punt the ball away. This would be the biggest test for us, it was all on the line now. This game, and the league championship. We got a great kick off, and Avalon started from their own 15 yard line. We were so tired! Remember, we only had 11 kids dressed out for this game, and only 10 played! They had more than 20! Most of our kids simply never left the field. And it showed in the last three minutes. They were having their way with us, marching right down the field. I’ll never forget seeing number 33 just bullying his way through our kids yard after yard, down after down.
You could feel the game slipping away from us. They got in to our territory, and it seriously looked like we were on ice skates trying to stop a tractor. They were muscling their way towards the endzone, their crowd was behind them and we only had one timeout left, which we wanted to save for offense.
Just then, one of our kids made a picture perfect tackle on the sidelines, on their sidelines, and I saw the wet pigskin fly out of the ballcarrier’s hands. It seemed like it was on the grass forever, waiting for a new owner. Finally, one of our freshman defensive backs pounced on the ball!! Our ball, on our own 15 yard line, 1:30 on the clock. We were up by 2, and had to get some first downs to run out the clock. We got one first down, then faced a 3rd and 9 from our own 35 yard line. This was the game, we used our time out.
During that timeout, as is his custom for big plays, I asked the players what they liked. This was his way to gauge what play they felt comfortable running. The players called the play right away, 500 WX Drags, a brand new play I drew up that week, specifically for this game, to take advantage of very aggressive and undisciplined linebackers. We hadn’t used it yet on this cold, misty day.
I saw the confidence in the eyes of the players, I saw the MENTAL TOUGHNESS in their eyes, and knew it was the right choice.
Get 9 yards here and the game is over, victory! The play called for the ball to be thrown from QB Melzer to W back Wilhelm. Let’s just say that Wilhelm wasn’t the team’s best receiver, he was an animal running the ball, but catching it was not his specialty. In fact, before this game, he had only three catches. The leading receiver of the team was La Bonty but he was now in double coverage because of his outstanding catches this day; we wouldn’t be able to get the ball to him. So, WX Drags it was. Melzer dropped back, and had plenty of time, thanks to stout offensive line play. Then Wilhelm changed his route, he didn’t run the drag. “What is he doing?” I yelled to anyone within hear shot, which was half of the island. Then, Melzer reached back and threw the pass of his life, a championship winning pass, to a wide open Wilhelm running a post pattern up the middle of the field. The ball hung in the air for what seemed like days, for some, it was in slow motion as it made its way to the arms of number 44. And he caught it! A 41 yard completion.
The Eagles won. The Lancers would burn one more time out, but couldn’t do anything more to keep the seconds from ticking down.
Three stories that Coach Fore will never forget about that trip. The first came as the team was waiting in the lobby on game day, getting ready to go have breakfast together. One of the hotel workers, and a former Avalon player saw the small team getting up to leave the hotel, and he asked “Where’s everyone else?” We responded with “This is it.” The look on his face told the story that most of the townspeople thought that morning when they saw our team, “Good luck today, hopefully you don’t have to send anyone to the hospital like they did last week with two kids.” Later, while at breakfast, when Coach was paying the bill, the waiter asked Coach what time the game was, and he said it was at 12:30. Then, the guy said “I know the varsity game is at 12:30, but what time are you guys playing? When is the JV game?” Coach laughed and said “We don’t have a JV team, this is our varsity team.” “Get out of here,” exclaimed the waiter. “I’m serious, and I think we will win” said Coach Fore. Then, the waiter looked at Coach Fore, put his hand over his heart, and bowed his head, and said in his thick Hispanic accent. “My prayers are with you.”
MENTAL TOUGHNESS – it won us this game, and this game won the League Championship! We went on to beat our next two opponents soundly. That game was a real test for our kids in the area of mental toughness. The mental toughness training for that game started in the summer, with a coach trying to learn more about how to instill it in his kids. It continued a few weeks later as the boys were tested with injuries. I firmly believe that without the mental toughness training that we went through, we wouldn’t have had the ability to win that game out on the island!