Ernie Cooper talks fast, moves even faster and implores his athletes to compete with equal gusto.
Cooper, Granite Bay High School's football coach, is in perpetual motion, caused by, he says, his Italian blood and his never-ending quest to improve the Grizzlies. Cooper zips from one station to the next at practice. From lineman drills to scout-team sessions and stretching exercises, Cooper is hands-on as he steers the Grizzlies toward a coveted destination: Carson.
Granite Bay takes a 10-game winning streak into Friday's Northern California Regional Division I game at Sacramento State against St. Ignatius, another surging team, with the winner landing a spot in the CIF State Division I Bowl in Carson next weekend.
Cooper's zest in the heat of September was mostly out of frustration after the Grizzlies limped to a 1-3 start. They weren't blocking well, couldn't make stops, couldn't rally or hold leads. So Cooper went back to basics. The Grizzlies adjusted, fine-tuned, then caught fire.
So imagine Cooper's excitement about his team now.
Granite Bay defeated Downey of Modesto, Franklin and Oak Ridge, teams that were a combined 34-2, in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs.
After beating Oak Ridge 35-23 Friday behind 606 yards of offense and two goal-line interceptions by sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith, the Grizzlies celebrated as their coach pumped his fist in a spirited postgame cheer.
"We're playing football and I'm coaching football and this should be fun," Cooper, 51, said. "It's so neat for the kids, and I'm happy for the staff and the school. It's so hard to get here. And yeah, I get excited."
Since getting his hip replaced four years ago, Cooper says he bounces like a teenager, only much wiser, and he's pretty much the king on Granite Bay's campus. He's won 10 league championships and five section titles since 1999.
"Oh, Ernie's big-time here," offensive-line coach Mike Lynch said. "I've been in this game for 52 years, 42 as a coach, and he's as good as there is. And he's really into this. You couldn't pull a toothpick out of him with a team of horses, he's that wired on game night."
The foundation to Granite Bay's success over the years has been year-round strength and conditioning, a surplus of motivated athletes, a crew of talented coaches and a unique offense.
When Granite Bay opened 16 years ago, Cooper brought the fly offense from Aptos High in Santa Cruz County. The scheme features two power backs who can run off tackle and a flyback who runs wide, and it requires a good quarterback and a solid offensive line. Granite Bay has mastered it.
This season, the fly features quarterback Grant Caraway (1,638 passing yards, 27 touchdowns), backs John Cooley (1,341 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns) and Taft Partridge (758 yards, eight touchdowns), and fly Tony Ellison (1,096 yards, 11 touchdowns).
Cooper and Lynch met with Mark Speckman in 1997, when Speckman coached at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., to discuss the fly offense. Speckman had used it at Merced High to crush teams in the 1980s. From that meeting, Cooper and Lynch also decided to play athletes just one way either on offense or defense.
"I've got to give Speckman a lot of kudos," Cooper said. "We learned a lot."
Said Lynch: "One-way players, it's common sense. You have players going 120 plays or 60, guess who's going to be more fresh? Fresh legs grind on you. For us, it's really paid off."
Partridge showed his legs were plenty fresh with fourth-quarter touchdown runs of 47 and 86 yards against Oak Ridge.
Playing just on offense keeps the linemen fresh, too.
Cooper and Lynch have a deep, versatile rotation of offensive linemen who can switch positions, including Kevin Blank, Parker Doyle, Justin Ramirez, Austin Smith, Tyler Bardy, Braulio Gonzalez and Jonathon Eitzman. Of the group, only Ramirez was a starter last season.
Blank epitomizes his team's grit. He blew out his right knee during wrestling season last winter and sat out the first two games this season while rehabilitating.
Blank and Partridge also are examples of Granite Bay's brotherhood. Blank's older brother, Eric, was a three-year varsity lineman for Lynch and the Grizzlies from 2003 to 2005. And Partridge is the fourth and final brother to come through the system.
"We're such a different team compared to earlier this year," Blank said. "It's fun to see. We're jelling really well."
With that, Blank hustled off. Cooper was waiting with another pep talk, another drill.