The Bee’s Joe Davidson gives the scoop on area high school football coaches
In football, when it rains, it dumps.
A monsoon of misery can dampen the spirits of even the most gregarious coaching sorts. Mounting losses can wear on a man’s psyche, of leaders who pour themselves into teaching and coaching and making a difference at the high school level. Despite their efforts, they’re sometimes left to wonder where the light is at the end of the tunnel.
And if that light isn’t just a train bearing down on them.
Matt Costa understands.
The Pleasant Grove coach winced most every day last fall. His gritty Eagles endured an 0-10 season. They were undone by a rash of injuries, of bad bounces, buckling to those misfortunes and better teams.
The coach explained how the only joy in losing streaks is ending them, as a season of renewed hope kicks off Friday. He speaks for a lot of those eager to get their ships steered in the right direction, to avoid another Titanic-like lost season.
A successful football team can resonate a feeling of good cheer across campus. A dreary season? Thunder clouds can loom even when the skies are clear.
“Oh man, when it’s bad, it can be really, really bad,” Costa said. “Everything that could go wrong for us last year did, and worse. We came in as wounded ducks before the first game. We lost 15 guys to a staph infection, another kid with a freak shoulder break, another to a compound dislocation to his middle finger, so we started 19 underclassmen.
“We weren’t a bad team, but all of sudden, instantaneously, it was all bad.”
Costa defines himself as a short, quirky crazy Irishman, of which he is. He’s also a better coach than his record shows. He doesn’t want to be an authority on program turnarounds, but, reluctantly, he is.
In his second season at Kennedy, in 2012, Costa and his players celebrated a victory over Johnson that halted a 28-game losing streak. Football became fun again in Greenhaven and at the Costa dinner table.
In his first season at Pleasant Grove in 2017, the Eagles snapped a 13-game losing streak with a triumph over Cosumnes Oaks. The Eagles went a competitive 3-7.
At Bella Vista in Fair Oaks, first-year coach Justin Reber inherits a program that has limped and labored through three successive 0-10 seasons.
Reber is an offensive guru, having designed plays to lead successful programs at the high school and junior college levels throughout the state. He needs players, and he said he has building blocks with the Broncos. Reber’s sheer will and enthusiasm has kept the Broncos afloat. Better days await.
“It’s my biggest challenge, by far, but I like it and the kids have been great,” Reber said.
In Placer County, Rocklin is coming off a 2-8 season and a five-game losing streak. That just doesn’t happen very often for the Thunder, one of the region’s top programs.
Longtime defensive coordinator Jason Adams takes over as head coach, and his fiery persona will ensure that the Thunder are a factor.
Rocklin went 2-8 in 2004, then went 11-2. It happens.
And kudos to the kids for sticking it out at all these programs. It’s easy to walk away, to quit, to grumble and point fingers.
Pleasant Grove has 47 players, the most Costa has had in his Eagles tenure. Players crave success and leadership.
It’s also important to understand that streaks are a cyclical thing. Even the mighty programs have suffered.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Folsom’s football goals were to win back-to-back games, to avoid getting squashed by regional powers. The Bulldogs went to work, hit the weight room, maximized players in open space and now peel off unbeaten or one-loss seasons like a machine.
Costa said he wasn’t going to beg players to stay at Pleasant Grove, certainly not those eager to bolt for other pastures.
“We had a couple of kids leave, and one transferred to Folsom,” Costa said. “OK, bye. See you later. You’re not a starter here and you’re not going to be a starter there. Have fun storming the castle.”
T.J. Ewing said losing builds character and winning is a byproduct of everyone coming together. He presided over Monterey Trail’s introduction into area football as a new school in 2004.
The Mustangs started with a 19-game losing streak, found their footing, seized the weight room and blocking sleds and have this decade been a staple of championship success.
“Football isn’t easy – it’s hard work and requires a lot of effort, but the lessons can last a life time,” Ewing said. “It’s hard to stop the losing, but once you start winning, that takes over, too.”
At Pleasant Grove, Costa has made sure to keep the game fun. This week, parents will hand out jerseys to players and talk – roast! – each of their own. There have been lively practices followed by fun film sessions.
“We’ve had a lot of team building, and it’s helped, and the practices have been amazing, just like the kids,” Costa said. “This has been the most fun I’ve had in the last 10 years of coaching.”
Losing scars a coach, and only winning soothes the hurt. Coaches feel for their player. And they wonder about their own resolve.
“I nearly quit last year,” Costa said. “It was that bad. I mean, bad. My wife (Karyn) lost her dad to pancreatic cancer. I lost my grandparents. Both of my parents had heart attacks. It was bad on the field but really bad off of it.
“It took a toll on me. I wasn’t as good of a teacher as I needed to be. It took a toll on my marriage, everything. There were days it was a struggle to get out of bed. You change how you think – what’s going to happen today? It got to the point where the goal was just to have a good day.
Costa added, “Football success is huge. Our biggest goal isn’t winning or losing, it’s making it fun, having a good experience. We’re going to have that.”
Costa leads his Eagles onto familiar turf on Friday at Kennedy. Rocklin opens against ranked Antelope, where a victory will do wonders for the Thunder’s psyche.
Bella Vista opens at home against rival Casa Roble.
The streaks will end. It’s just a matter of when.