Making an Old Tradition New. 

In 4 of our first 6 seasons, prior to the pandemic, St Johnsbury Academy advanced to the State Championship game. Given the forecast conclusion to the season, we planned and executed a celebration of our seniors’ last practice.  While we’ve made the playoffs in every other season, if we don’t make it to the championship, the playoff loss stops the advance, ending things abruptly, and without celebration.  

During those years, when we knew it was our last practice, we established a tradition where we would all meet in the middle of our field and invite the seniors to go to their most memorable spot on the field.  The underclassmen make notice of each senior and his/her location.  Then the seniors are asked to return to the team and explain where they went and why it was so meaningful.  For some, it is the spot of their first start, first tackle, or first score. One player went off the field to a spot just inside the stadium where he said he made his first friends after moving here.  Another went behind the goalposts where he used to shag extra points for the varsity when he was only a freshman. One of my all-time favorites was a player who went to where we break down after every practice and say “brothers.”  He went on to explain that location is where he first felt like he was a part of something bigger than himself.  Part of a family…  

After the last senior shares their story, the underclassmen line up in a gauntlet at the edge of the field so they can have one last hug and share parting words with each senior as they make their way through the line of players with eyes filled with tears.   

This tradition is too special to only do on those years when we reach Championship Saturday, so now we come out to the field on the first Monday after our last game.  Regardless of how far we advance in the playoffs, our seniors are celebrated, their legacy passed on, and the tradition continues.  

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!  

Quotes, Competition, & Camaraderie

On a rare 70-degree, late October day in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, quotes from Nelson Mandela and Sir Andrew of Scotland provided the pre-game motivation spurring our team to a 48-14 victory over our rivals in the 117th playing of “The Game.”

As we noted last week, these two small towns have one of the longest-standing rivalries in the country, and both communities turned out to continue the legacy of competition and camaraderie.

Two nights before the game during our team’s traditional steak dinner, I shared a quote from Nelson Mandela with our team: “Do not judge me on my successes; judge me on the times I fell down and got back up.”  The quote perfectly describes our season that began with two monster wins against state powers, only then to be derailed by a rash of injuries and subsequent losses. 

I followed by letting our players know that it was during those defeats and not the wins that I saw the true character of our team.  We played hard regardless of the score or time left on the clock.  No one pointed fingers.  Teammates, staff, and fans alike encouraged the back-ups who were thrust into starting positions due to those aforementioned injuries. In some cases, a player’s first experience saw him lined up against a larger and stronger veteran opponent, yet able to muster the courage to meet the task at hand. I told them how proud we all are of their commitment to the team, each other, and our Hilltopper culture.

A father of one of our seniors, who was serving dinner to the players that night and was also inspired by the Mandela quote, shared one of his favorites in an email later that night:  “Fight on my men,” Sir Andrew said. “A little I am hurt, but not yet slain. I’ll just lie down and bleed a while, and then I’ll rise and fight again.”  

The next day, on stage in front of a packed auditorium, I shared both of those quotes with our student body during our pregame pep chapel.  Later that evening at the alumni social, one teacher told me she had never seen the auditorium so quiet and students so engaged as they were during that speech. No phones… no side chatter… just focus.

The words from those two great men inspired our players on the field, but more importantly, I hope they continue to inspire them and their classmates for many years after they leave the Academy.  

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!  

Small Towns, Big Traditions

This weekend will be the 117th playing of “The Game.”  St Johnsbury Academy and Lyndon Institute have been playing this football game since 1894.  In 2013, USA Today polled to determine the country’s greatest high school football rivalries.  “The Game” won Vermont, New England, and the East, and took fourth in the nation.  

Join us for the 117th iteration of “The Game,” one of the longest-running football traditions in the Nation

The week leading up to “The Game” is dubbed Spirit Week. Students decorate hallways and a float for the parade.  On Thursday night, the football team has a steak dinner served by the seniors’ parents at our local Elks Club.  On Friday night, a parade down Main Street returns to campus for a bonfire.  After the fire, everyone in the community is invited to the school cafeteria for a pizza party.  After that, it is adults-only for an alumni reception back at the Elks Club.  

This rivalry not only brings out the best in both football teams but also showcases the best of our schools and communities.  Church steeples in both towns are lit in school colors. Players, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, and others join in the activities and share camaraderie and spirit originating nearly 130 years ago. Deep ties to legacy are alive and well, and this is what high school football in a small town is all about.  

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!  

Moral Victories & Life Lessons

Yes, there are moral victories in sports, as in life.  Some programs and coaches accustomed to winning and playing for championships may tell you there are no such things as moral victories.  You either win or lose…  While that is true on the scoreboard, it is not necessarily true in the development of a team or its student-athletes.

Teams Stick Together (Photo by Paul Hayes)

This past weekend we hosted the only 4-0 Division 1 team in Vermont, and did so absent the contributions of 4 injured starters, and early in the game, lost a 5th

Yet we found ourselves knotted at 21 at the half and only down one score later in the 4th.  In a seesawing contest where momentum shifted multiple time, there were ample opportunities for our players to become overwhelmed and feel sorry for themselves. Yet they found ways to rise to the challenge and battle back nearly every time. While we did not ultimately win the contest, we accomplished a great deal against a very tough opponent. 

In high school sports, one must embrace the concept of education-based athletics.  We learned a great deal about our team and those players who stepped up from their backup roles. Friday night’s game was a finite game… It had a beginning, an end, and a winner and a loser. Life, however, is an infinite game. In an infinite game, the goal is to make choices and decisions enabling the continuation of play.

Despite the perceived prowess of the opponent, injuries, and shifting momentum, our players never quit. They fought through adversity, turned to each other, and battled back. All traits and characteristics underpinning success in the infinite game of life. While the clock may have run out sooner than we would have liked, the lessons learned from that loss will serve our team well this season and our players for the rest of their lives.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!  

A Tradition of Outreach

Long after our players forget how to block “Power Read” or to “make a coverage check versus an empty set,” our goal is that they will still remember the life lessons they learned both on and off the field.  It is a coach’s responsibility to build teams, win games, and develop student-athletes of character who give back to their community now, and for years to come.  

2022 Hilltoppers setting examples of teamwork and service on & off the field.

This past weekend was an outstanding community outreach opportunity for our team.  It marked the eighth year our team gathered on a Sunday morning in late September, to support the Walk to End Alzheimer’s.  Eight years ago, we were the only sports team to join the walk.  This year, every Fall team at the Academy, one winter team, our local Pop Warner football team, and a team from another school followed our lead and joined in supporting the walk.  I’d like to think we helped set an example and developed a little momentum encouraging others to join the Fight against Alzheimer’s and raise awareness of other opportunities for community service.

Aside from participating in the walk and having a strong visual presence at the event, we ask each player to consider a small donation of their own money to the cause. Just as we sacrifice for one another on the field, it’s my hope traditions like this one encourage teammates to sacrifice for others long after the last whistle. I have told players for many years, “the hand that gives gathers.”

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!  

Mental Toughness & Resilience

After a 2-0 start, the Hilltoppers suffered a 2-point road loss against the defending state champions in a game plagued with injuries, penalties, and turnovers.  There were opportunities to win that game but we squandered them and did so against a good team who came ready to play.  

I have to admit, inside… where thoughts echo and reverberate, I’m terrible when it comes to losing… However, over the years, I’ve learned to compartmentalize those feelings and focus on what comes next. Jack Clark, Head Coach of the University of California, Berkley Men’s Rugby Team has the most NCAA championships of any college coach in any college sport. Coach Clark defines mental toughness as “the unflinching and relentless ability to identify and execute the next most important thing regardless of the circumstance.” I’d like to think I’ve learned such a concept over more than four decades of playing and coaching this game, and I believe Coach Clark has it right.  

There is no time to wallow in the loss or dwell on last week’s game. We welcome last season’s state finalists this Friday night.  Our focus needs to be on what lies ahead.  I have used the analogy of the windshield and the rearview mirror for years to remind students to focus on what lies ahead and not on what is in their past.  Sure, the rearview is helpful and often may offer a valuable perspective, but there is a reason the windshield of a car is so much larger than the rearview mirror. The majority of our time and attention needs to be focused on what lies in front of us.  We should only occasionally glance at those things in our past.  We learn from them and become better prepared for the future because of them…  But if you spend too much time focused on what is behind you in life or in your car, you will crash into what lies ahead of you. 

Losses may be painful in the moment, and one must feel the feelings and emotions one encounters. However, as we try to teach resilience in our student-athletes, they need to know they can take a hit, a loss, or a momentary disruption and bounce back. As with many lessons we teach around this great game, it’s our most sincere hope our players will learn these lessons, and bounce back in practice, on gameday, and in life.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!  

Go Earn A Sticker…

Like the Ohio State Buckeyes, we recognize player performance by awarding our players with helmet stickers.  Players earn a sticker for among other things, kicking extra points.  After our first game in 2019, our kicker was awarded 7 helmet stickers.  After the meeting where the stickers were presented, the long snapper and holder came to me and lobbied for themselves to also receive stickers as they were as crucial to the extra point as the kicker.  I had never thought of it that way…  Having been a long snapper for extra points in college I knew how nerve wracking it was to have the pressure of a perfect snap on every point after touchdown attempt but I always looked at it as just doing my job.  

Helmet stickers reflect individual contributions to Team success.

Earlier this week I received the following email from a former player who long snapped for us long before we gave that position helmet stickers, reminding me of just how important that role is.  

Hey Coach, I watched Cincinnati and Pittsburgh yesterday, and they had quite the finish. I remember I got an early chance to play at the Academy because of special teams. The long snapping job was one I always valued, even when I had the opportunity to play for you on the offensive side of the ball. I saw yesterday how much the typical fan likely undervalues the importance of that role. The Bengals snapper was injured, and one of their TEs had to snap. Evidentially, they had an XP get blocked, which would’ve ended the game in regulation, and then they missed a short FG in overtime. Both were due to slow/bad snaps. I’m not sure if you saw the highlights, but I wanted to share this with you. A nice reminder for kids to get to the field early before practice starts!

We’ve commented often how the game of football reminds us of our interdependence with teammates, and ultimately how working together, we are stronger than any of us could be by ourselves. Each of us has a role to play and a contribution to give for the betterment of the team. Long snappers, holders, kickers, even the sophomore linebacker filling a role on the scout defense who helps sharpen the starting offense… each of us has a contribution. Each must be ready when called upon whether in a game, in the classroom or in life. What role will you be called to fill? Are you ready to contribute to your team, family, club, church, or community…? Just like the long snapper, holder, and kicker…Together, we’re better than any one of us alone. Contribute to your team… Go earn a sticker!

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time! 

Everyone Has A Plan…

Iron Mike Tyson’s famous quote, “everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face,” perfectly explains the start of our 2022 season.  

As underdogs, on the road vs #2 ranked Hartford High School, we had a disastrous start that led us to be down 7-0 one minute into the game.  Weeks earlier, we had a terrible practice that I contemplated ending early…  But I wanted to see how the team would respond to hard coaching, and they finished that practice session with a great final 15-minute team period. 

Final Scoreboard photo Courtesy of Erin Messer, Vice President of the Hilltopper Football Family Group

As we discussed here on last week’s Blog, a football’s points mean sometimes the ball bounces in unexpected ways…

Just prior to the Hartford game, I reminded the team of that unexpected practice, and their resilience in the face of adversity… I told them that at some point things may not go well tonight but we all know how well you can respond and can turn things around just like you did weeks ago.  I never thought such advice would be implemented so quickly at the start of the game.  

But just like they did during that terrible practice session, our players showed great resilience and outscored our opponents 49-7 over the next 47 minutes.  Unlike most of MIke Tyson’s counterparts, we got hit in the face and were still able to execute our plan.  Things do not always go as planned on the football field or in life.  Holocaust survivor and author Victor Frankl notes, “In the moments between stimulus and response, we find character, and our actions define who we are at our core.” I’m proud of the team, their character, and our culture. They responded like “Hilltoppers,” and carried forward a proud legacy of the legion who played before them.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!  

Undefeated…

Every team starts its season undefeated.  Very few finish that way.  In the last nine years, we have been fortunate to take three teams into the State Championship game undefeated (2014, 2017, 2019), but only one stayed that way.  Perfection is a rare anomaly and is most often a circumstance combining teamwork, performance, and luck.

When preparation meets opportunity

Football, however, is an imperfect game. It is played with a prolate spheroid (football) that bounces in any direction with no predictability.  It is officiated by men and women who though doing their best, must make subjective decisions in seconds.  At the same time, coaches combine strategy and analytics while combatting predictable patterns and confirmation bias. Additionally, both players and coaches must contend with friction and uncertainty as imperfect opponents compete under the pressure of diminishing time.

The philosophy of our program is that games are not won on weekends in the Fall, but in the hours, days, and weeks of preparation occurring all year long.  Of course, most coaches will also tell you “luck is best found where preparation meets opportunity.” As a veteran coach who began his career back in the 1980s, I always hope for luck to be on our side and that the spheroid bounces in our direction.  I would expect others to feel the same way. Good luck to all the coaches and players beginning the 2022 season.  Play hard and play safe.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!

Expanding Our Influence

I’m very fortunate and feel flattered to have been named the President of the recently formed “Vermont Football Coaches Association (VFCA).”  It’s my privilege to have the opportunity to establish a foundation and set an initial course. I sincerely hope to make lasting contributions to the benefit of the sport in our state.  

A lofty goal that may not be achievable in my lifetime is that no potential player ever utters the worst 6 words a coach can hear…”My mom won’t let me play.”  Those words are often followed by “she doesn’t want me to get hurt.”  While I understand the inherent risks of injury in contact sports and have suffered a few of them, I strongly believe the benefits far outweigh the risks.  No sport teaches mental and physical toughness, teamwork, discipline, and work ethic quite like football.  It is a mentally and physically demanding game requiring every player to make good decisions and perform with precision on every play to create team success.  These circumstances lead to camaraderie and cohesion unmatched in any other sport.

Heather Wallek, Julia Kearney, Brooke Davis all took to the field during St J’s recent intrasquad scrimmage.

This past weekend, during our intrasquad scrimmage on the campus of St Johnsbury Academy, we took big steps in changing the impression some mothers may have of football.  For the first time in the state of Vermont, a female official, coach, and player were all taking an active role in a football contest.  Heather Wallek, a first-year football official, learned from veteran officials.  Julia Kearney, a first-year coach, and Vermont’s first female football coach kept a watchful eye over her position players.  Brooke Davis, a first-year player, got in several reps at her safety position.  I trust all of them will see the benefits of teamwork, character development, and competition, and ultimately let their kids play football.

VFCA will engage, solicit input, and incorporate a broad variety of perspectives from the Mothers of Vermont’s student-athletes and those who influence today’s and tomorrow’s players and parents. Together, we can focus on the very best this great game has to offer, and see benefits extend for decades to come.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for supporting this blog and joining our conversations, and as always, thanks for your time!