Bob Clement might have thought he had seen it all in his decades coaching high school football, but Tuesday he was the first to admit he was wrong.
The Pittsford head coach has been steadfastly preparing for a most critical game against Jackson Vandercook Lake on Friday, with a playoff berth on the line and a community holding its breath, unsure if its senior class will ever take the field beyond those 48 minutes.
But instead of focusing on the X’s and O’s and going over game film one more time, Clement was forced to worry about his team’s health and figure out how to cram three days of practice into one long evening, with the threat of the influenza virus shutting down Pittsford Area Schools for the rest of the week.
For a local legend who just tallied his 200th career win this is about as out of the ordinary as it gets.
“I have never had a practice cancelled — never, ever,” he said. “I was worried last week. Our big tackle (Nicholas Kik), I could only play him about three plays in a row last week because he was so sick. He was just all congested and he could hardly breathe.”
Key senior Kurtis Brackman has been out of practice the last two days, as have several starting lineman, and starting safety Blake Toner
Clement had 23 players at practice Tuesday, with a bunch of JV call-ups helping out so his squad could cram in full offensive, defensive and special teams drills.
Senior co-captain Garet Lee said practice went well and he’s not looking at this week as being any crazier than normal for a team who must have the “win or go home” mentality.
“Sure, everyone’s been a little scared, but we just need to get healthy and everything will be fine,” he said. “It’s no big deal, you’ve just got to let it go over you. It happens.”
The flu scare is just the latest obstacle for a team that had to truly find itself after 20-plus point losses to Ottawa Lake Whiteford and Colon to begin the season.
Players and coaches say a 40-21 win over Grand Rapids Northpointe Christian in week three was the definite turning point of the year. The Wildcats’ only loss the rest of the way has been a 13-point defeat to undefeated Climax-Scotts, a game Pittsford trailed by just a touchdown until the final minute.
“The first two losses, our team went into those games feeling like it was a job we disliked, acting like we didn’t know how to have fun, like we didn’t want to play,” Lee said. “After those first two losses I think it hit (some) people that this is not what we do, we are not used to losing. And really we just stopped playing so tight and we loosened up and the next week against Northpointe Christian our defense was getting in trouble for barking at their linemen because we were going so crazy.”
Their four victories following the Northpointe game have come by an average margin of 22.5 points, as the Wildcats have scrambled to earn a shot at the program’s sixth straight playoff berth.
Clement said this set of boys has been particularly special to watch grow.
“This is a great senior group. Every one of them was in the weight room putting in hours this summer,” he said. “At the beginning we just weren’t quite sure where everybody should be and we hadn’t gelled yet, but these kids have played hard. Even the games we lost our kids played tough, played hard, and all three of those teams are going to the playoffs.”
If the Wildcats want to join them in the field of 256 teams that is announced Sunday they will have to go on the road and defeat a Vandercook Lake squad that is deceptively good for its record, according to Clement.
The Jayhawks three wins are against teams with a combined record of 2-22, but they have been hit hard with injuries, and they are finally healthy Clement said, noting a phone conversation he had with Vandercook Lake head coach Matt Markwart.
The Jayhawks lost to East Jackson by just a field goal and they hung with playoff contender Addison for a quarter, but inconsistency fills up their 2009 resumé.
The lost to Grass Lake 37-7 last week, allowing more than 300 yards rushing for the second time in three weeks, which bodes well for the run-first Wildcats.
Nonetheless Clement is not about to downplay his opponent.
“It’s very deceptive, especially when their school is twice the size of ours. They have 33 kids on their varsity team, all juniors and seniors. That’s a little different than what we’ve got,” he said. “They’re a really good 3-5 team, let me tell you. They’re really huge, they’ve got two good (running) backs, a good quarterback.”
Travis Mascho is their top back and Zak Patrick is the starting signal caller.
The Jayhawks run a pro-style offense and will often put between three and five receivers out wide. They have a considerable size advantage on the line, as Clement is happy to point out.
“They’re huge. Their center is 350 pounds and he can move,” he said. “Our nose tackle is about 150. (Their center is) big, but he’s not a slob, he can move.”
Just as quickly Clement is quick to complement his defense, a unit that shut out Battle Creek St. Phil last week.
“Our defense is just getting better — we were real weak in the passing game and we’re really coming around in that,” he said. “Three interceptions last week, including one Garet returned 99 ½ yards.”
Defensively, Clement said the Jayhawks’ secondary is very athletic, utilizing their QB and main halfbacks in those spots, but Pittsford is completing just three passes per game so that point may be mute come Friday.
They like to put the ball on the ground and pound away until the opposition calls mercy. Lee has 931 yards and 16 TDs on the ground, while Taylor Hatfield has 475 yards and six scores and Brackman has 428 yards and four TDs.
Last year the Wildcats were more balanced, and while Lee said he sometimes wishes the passing game would come together, he’s not going to dwell on it.
“I really don’t know, I mean our offense is our offense. We plan on passing it more I believe, but I mean what happens, happens,” he said. “It’d be nice, but you’ve got to go by what the coaches call the play at least. I’m not complaining, the running offense is fine as it is.”
The Jayhawks like to stack the line and they shift between 5-3, 5-2 and 6-2 defensive fronts.
While analyzing match-ups never hurt, both Clement and Lee believe the Wildcats should be playing in at least a 10th game as long as they stick to what has been working.
“If we play like we did this last week, with the same intensity, we’ll win that game,” Clement said.
Clement said leaders like Lee, who played with broken knuckles the first few games, are exactly the reason he’s confident in his squad and Lee is as focused as ever.
“You’re fighting for everything right now and we don’t know if we’ll be in the playoffs or not. It’s not really about a whole lot more than we just have to play with heart and if we play like we’re capable of we’ll be fine,” Lee said.