In today’s high school football scene, “P” is for pressure — mostly to win — but it’s also for “Patience.” Our insta-everything world appears to still have a spot or two saved for schools who stuck by their coaches’ philosophies through troubled times, and it’s helped the 2012 season become a success.
Remember the tiresome adage, “Sometimes the best moves in life are the one you don’t make?” It’s cliche for a reason, and so far Highland, Tempe, Desert Mountain, even Paradise Valley are happy to benefit.
Start with Highland. The Hawks hovered around .500 since Pete Wahlheim took over the program in 2007, but went 3-7 in 2009 and 4-6 in both 2010 and 2011.
The Hawks went 4-1 in the final month of the 2011 season, and with most of those kids returning, a winning season was the built-in expectation laid out by athletic director Rod Huston (once a successful coach at Desert Vista when the school opened). It’s also part of next year’s expectations as well.
Huston isn’t the most patient person, but he also sees kids missing occasional football practice because they’re playing in the school band; that kids in Wahlheim’s program are enhancing their lives beyond sports.
“Kids that leave here are pretty darn successful,” Huston said. “Is Pete the right guy? Yeah. Is he the guy everyone wants around? No. There’s been pressure to get rid of him, but that’s where we’ve lost sight of things.
“He’s not the most outgoing guy which sometimes can be a hindrance in the community, but he has strong values and believes in second chances. The big thing we use a lot around here is needing football more than football needs them.”
Wahlheim knows his approach is a bit more “old school,” both in his preference to run the ball instead of high-flying pass-happy schoolyard offenses, and play physical defense. A guy adamant about family and faith, he’s always given the neighborhoods’ kids in the program “priority,” isn’t thrilled about the extracurricular activities placed on coaches these days and won’t be spending every night away from his family watching lower-level practices and games.
Huston and Wahlheim both acknowledge his ways have rubbed some parents the wrong way, but believe the results (in football and in life) speak for themselves now, and will in 20 years.
“It’s really important when you’re down not to push the panic button,” Wahlheim said. “We try to hold on to certain principles. I’ll always believe in being a physical football team who runs the ball and plays defense. That’s not going to change. It’s hard for kids to stay on that path when they’re not winning. That’s why I’m so happy for them.”
Many of the sentiments are shared at Tempe High, which could be placed in its own world for what many coaches, staff, kids and parents deal with far, far away from any football field.
Brian Walker went 3-7 in 2009, 0-10 in 2010 and 1-9 in 2011.
The pressure was on.
The Buffaloes’ freshmen and sophomore classes who took two years’ worth of lumps are now juniors and seniors, while Emanuel Gant has grown in only his sophomore season after starting (and struggling) through most of 2011 as a freshman. The Buffaloes (5-2) are headed towards the Division III playoffs and the first winning regular season since 2004.
Meanwhile, what many of their kids deal with in daily life couldn’t fit in this space. Walker noted one of his player’s father was killed in a shooting a couple weeks ago, and another player who has a child missed last week’s game because the baby was hospitalized.
Still, Walker knew the pressure to win more games immediately was palpable.
“It’s a tough thing when you’re trying to make sure enrollment numbers stay up, kids stay in the program, and some are taking care of their families at the same time,” he said. “Patience is required.
“It’s unfortunate because at a place like Tempe there is no quick solution. We’re finding a little success now but we’re not out of the woods or close. I’m happy we’re having success but we also have to keep winning games we’re not supposed to win.”
Desert Mountain doesn’t have nearly the same widespread socio-economic or familial struggles of Tempe High, but the Wolves know all about losing games and kids. Despite often-undisciplined kids and fire-breathing parents, Tony Tabor’s program escalated piece-by-piece which culminated in 2009’s 9-4 record and trip to the 5A Division II state semifinals.
A massive group of seniors who went through three season of sub-.500 football were lost after 2009, and the Wolves went 0-10 in 2010 and 4-6 last year.
Athletic director Steve Harris fielded plenty of calls and emails but stuck with Tabor. With junior QB Kyle Allen and junior wideout Mark Andrews back after starting all of their sophomore seasons, a healthier running game and a couple experienced lineman, the Wolves are currently 6-1.
A former player and assistant at Paradise Valley, Donnie Yantis has run the program since 2000. The Trojans were 10-1 in 2004, struggled the next two years, went 9-3 in ‘07 and ‘08 and struggled again. They weere 2-8 in 2010 and 4-6 in 2011, but are 5-2 in 2012.
So either the pressure was on and the teams have conveniently responded, there’s been a series of slow progressions after regressions, or it’s about everything beyond wins and losses.
When afforded the chance over a few years, perhaps the “P” stands for “progress,” “patience” and “perseverence.”
“There’s more to being a good high school coach than wins and losses, and it’s an unpopular thing to say today,” Huston said. “I hear it in my own stands. You take someone of quality character and someone my kids would play for, and it won’t be easy or popular; that what they learned and developed is really going to matter when they’re 35-years-old and digging in their feet somewhere in their community.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.