By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Hugs and smiles. A congratulatory slap on the shoulder pads. Simple things that most high school football players take for granted. Even if your team goes .500, you’ll still get to experienced a positive post-game feeling five times in a season.
Coming into this season, a lot of the players at Pleasantville had no idea what it felt like to walk off the field a winner. The Greyhounds went 0-10 in 2014, then again in 2015. Head coach Chris Sacco too over the program in the summer of 2015, and the former St. Joseph assistant began telling his players that their days playing for a winless program would soon be over, if they were willing to take a few lumps and put in the kind of work it was going to take to pull off one of the biggest turnarounds in South Jersey. Even after the Greyhounds went 0-10 again last year, Sacco never wavered. He just kept telling his players, stick to the plan, trust the process.
“The biggest thing to me was getting people in here who were on the same page as far as where we wanted this program to go and the steps we were going to have to take to get there. You never want to concede a season or say you’re going to have to take some lumps, but we knew we were going to have to take some lumps last year. The guys on my coaching staff have come from winning programs, so it was very humbling to us and hard for us to go 0-10 last year. But we knew we were setting the foundation for what we want this program to be long-term,” Sacco said. “So, that was the first thing that was very important to us. The second was establishing an offseason workout program where we get in there in January and if kids aren’t playing other sports then they are lifting with us. That’s important, because football is one of the more physical sports out there, and we needed to get these guys physically and mentally ready in the offseason to win. We feel like we’re not there yet, but we’re on our way and we’re happy with where we are going.”
To say the Pleasantville football program has had some hard times recently would be an understatement. In the past 13 seasons, the Greyhounds have won just 20 games while losing 107. They endured five winless seasons and three other seasons in which the team won just one game, and there have been two losing streaks of more than 20 games.
Sacco said he spent a lot of time thinking about how he should treat his players when he took the job. Should he go with the old-school, tough-love approach? And if he did that, would he alienate the players? Should he be more lenient on them? But if he did that, would they not work hard enough to be able to turn the program around?
“It was definitely an adjustment, but we knew coming into this that I had to be open to the idea of maybe giving a little more leniency to players than maybe we had in programs that I grew up in. But having great coaches throughout my whole life, I’ve always had great football people who related football to life. I knew this was a great opportunity because we could make a difference on the football field, but we could also make a difference in kids’ lives. That, to me, was more important than any wins or losses. Getting to know the kids and their families, it’s been tremendous. And I definitely have to thank the football people in my life for preparing me for this opportunity. Without them, I don’t know if I would be here,” Sacco said. “I knew it was going to be a process. Coming in, should I be really hard on them in the beginning? Really easy? Somewhere in the middle? That was something that I really had to think about and we, as a staff, had to discuss and figure out where we wanted to go with that. I’m fortunate enough to be in the building and the kids can come to see me whenever they want. They see that I’m there doing everything I can, whether it’s helping them with their grades, getting them tutoring, and also from a football perspective these kids see how much time and effort we are putting in to make this a better program. Nothing speaks louder than hard work, in my opinion, and they are seeing that we are there for them and we are there to put in the work for them. I think they are starting to see that, and reciprocate. Ultimately, actions speak louder than words and they are seeing what we are doing and are believing in the program now.”
Despite going 0-10 a year ago, Sacco felt the players were beginning to buy what he was selling. That was confirmed last winter, when current junior quarterback Le’Quai Athill and current seniors Tay’shon Evans and Malik Morgan would gather players on their own on Saturdays in February and March and run through passing plays to try to get their timing down. Those players continued to encourage other players to get in the weight room, and now Pleasantville has a roster of more than 45 players who are bigger, stronger and faster than they were a year ago.
“We told them to trust the process and commit themselves to the weight room, and if they did that they would become better players. If they did what we were telling them to do, the offseason training, the camps, everything that goes along with the offseason, they were going to become better football players,” Sacco said. “These kids took the initiative on their own back in February to get out there on Saturdays and throw the football to try to get timing down. That shows me these kids are hungry and they want to win, and that’s what you need to turn a program around. You need hungry kids. It’s a testament to these kids. It’s a great group. We have 48 kids, and I would take all 48 of them on my team any day of the week because of their work ethic and drive to get better.”
The proof is in the pudding, and Pleasantville opened some eyes when it lost just 14-7 to Buena, one of the top programs in South Jersey, in this year’s season opener. The following week, the Greyhounds went on the road and beat Riverside to snap a 21-game losing streak. Sacco said it was a noisy bus ride back home, but he’ll take that any day.
“It was so nice to see the guys smile,” Sacco said. “After 11 straight games of getting on the bus or going into the locker room and see guys upset, it was nice to see them have some gratification in the fact that we came out on top and that hard work does pay off. The bus ride home was rowdy for the first 15 or 20 minutes, but we told them that if they win, they can be as loud as they want on the bus ride home. I think the kids were as happy for me as I was for them. They are great kids.”
The following week, Pleasantville manhandled Pitman, 50-7, to improve to 2-1. It marked the first time the Greyhounds had been above .500 since the 2003 season.
“It feels good. We just came out here and played our game. We wanted this ‘W’ so bad. We just came out here, played our game and got the ‘W.’ We just come to practice and work hard, that’s been the biggest factor. And believing in our coaching staff. That’s the biggest factor,” Evans said. “It means a lot. When I was little, people would always say that Pleasantville wasn’t any good. This year, we’re trying to make a change.”
“This is the first time in 13 years we’ve been over .500. It’s a great feeling and it gives us some confidence. But we have to continue to work hard,” Athill added.
Even fans are taking notice of the changes happening within the Pleasantville football program.
“People don’t realize that these kids have worked hard to get some recognition. To see the kids so pumped and excited, and to see the job coach Sacco and his assistants have done, they deserve a lot of credit,” said Tom Becker, whose son, Tommy, was a member of the 2013 team before graduating. “It means so much because we’ve gone through so many losses. To see people recognizing Pleasantville as a good team now, that’s great. It’s so awesome to see these kids celebrate. People don’t know how much it means to these kids.”
Sacco said he was worried about not getting a win early in the season. He didn’t want frustration to start creeping in and dismantling all the hard work his players had put in during the offseason.
“I thought we had talent, but I was definitely worried about how early we were going to get a win. I wanted these kids to see results quickly so they understand how much of a payoff they get from the extra work they do in the offseason. This is not a result of the schedule, it’s a result of them busting their butts in the offseason. I think it was important for them to get a win early. We were close against Buena and I think the kids felt like we were right there, but we recovered and moved past that quickly,” Sacco said. “We’re starting to see more families and students out to watch the games. The more we can win, the more support we will see for these guys, and they definitely deserve it. That’s what it’s all about, seeing a mom or dad coming up after a game and congratulating their son. I get more satisfaction from that than I do from the actual win. It’s nice to see these kids getting support and seeing some recognition.”
Athill said he was confident from the start that Sacco would be the type of coach who could turn the Greyhounds’ fortunes around.
“My first impression of him was good. He came from a winning program, coaching at St. Joseph. That’s one of the powerhouse teams in New Jersey,” Athill said. “This summer was big for us. We had to get guys to come out. We knew we had the talent to compete with a lot of teams. So, this offseason, we just worked hard. We have the hunger and love for the game. Having athletic seniors gives me and the team great confidence. I know I can trust them to make plays.”
Pleasantville still has some very tough teams left on its schedule, and it’s no guarantee the Greyhounds will finish above .500 this year. But even talking about having a winning season — and actually believing it can happen — is something that hasn’t happened for this football program for a long time.
“We are trying so hard to prove people wrong. Everybody has been doubting us and thinking that we’re not any good, so we just try to come out here and prove people wrong,” Athill said. “The energy (in the stands) brings a big boost to us out on the field. It feels good to have a crowd screaming for us. The past few years, I’ve never had that before, but now the word is getting around. Just wearing our jerseys around school and having people congratulate us and say good luck is awesome. It’s a great feeling having people gaining confidence in the football team again.”
Sacco said he believes that if you want to have a winning program, it’s the little things that count. Kids have to go to class, get good grades, show up to offseason workouts. He also said it’s important for the players to look and feel like winners, which is why he insisted on getting the team all new uniforms this year. The Greyhounds now have snazzy grey home uniforms and all-white road uniforms made by Under Armour, and Sacco went with white helmets with a maroon ‘P’ logo, giving the team sort of a throwback look.
“They got to wear the new jerseys around school (before the Pitman game) and I asked them if they got any compliments. They said, ‘oh, yeah, everybody loves the grey jerseys!’ So there is positive recognition around the program right now, whether it’s the jerseys, the wins, the way the guys are performing. I’m also getting really good reports about how the kids are acting in school. So it’s been a really positive year so far, and we want to continue that,” Sacco said. “I’m a counselor at the school, so I get to talk to these guys about their grades, what they want to do in their careers. And having an opportunity to help these guys get to where they want to be in life is something that’s very important to me and I take that very seriously because that’s what we are there for. I always tell these guys that if playing high school football is the pinnacle of your life, then I’m failing you, because you do have more potential. You have the potential to go to college or a trade school and do well. So I hope they use us as a stepping stone to get to where they want to be.”
Ultimately, it’s about winning, Sacco said, but not for the reasons a typical fan might think. He wants his players to be winners on the field so that attitude transfers into their daily life. The ultimate goal, he said, is for his players to use the positive experience of playing high school football to build a foundation for future success.
“I want these guys to understand that hard work goes a long way, and if they are willing to put in the work — whether it’s in football or in the classroom — you’re going to get to where you want to be,” Sacco said. “There are people who doubted me, but you have to brush that aside and get to work. If you want something bad enough, you can go get it. That’s what I want to emphasize with these guys. The sky is the limit. They have a good foundation and a good support system in the school and with the coaching staff, and we’re going to do everything we can to help them get to where they want to be.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullsays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN