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Forming the foundation for ongoing success

Whether it is a better run through the playoffs, simply posting a winning record or reclaiming past fortunes, every coach in the county has his own method for turning around a program and reaching his team's respective goal.

By DAWN REISS
Published August 25, 2006


In sports, like life, little things make all the difference. Taking a few extra snaps, adjusting an elbow, going to the weight room for one more workout.

Seasons, like games, have turning points where something makes the momentum tip one way or another. Around Citrus County, coaches are making small changes in the hopes of turning their programs in the right direction.

Though Citrus posted back-to-back winning records - for the first time in more than a decade - and consecutive playoff appearances, third-year coach Rik Haines knows he is a long way from a dynasty.

Two years ago, Citrus won its first playoff game since 1974 (13-6 over North Marion), only to get blown out 76-6 by Nease in a Class 4A region semifinal. Last year, the 'Canes won their first district title since 1987, but were crushed 64-25 in a first-round loss to Williston.

"We didn't finish," Haines said. "We looked at Williston as a second-place team."

Lecanto would love to have that problem. The Panthers just want a winning season, something they have done once in the program's 22-year history. To do that, coach Bob LeCours knows he has to change the losing mentality that has long been ingrained in the Panthers, much like the "lovable losers" of the Chicago Cubs.

It won't be easy with a young team that graduated 22 seniors and doesn't return a single starter in the backfield. Junior left guard Nick Kaufman and junior center Kevin Pass are the only offensive returnees, while senior linebacker Jon Klabacka is the lone starter on the defensive line.

"You have to keep a positive attitude, to get players to dedicate themselves, to get them to believe," LeCours said. "There is no substitution for hard work and commitment."

A string of bad years has left Crystal River longing for its glory days when the Pirates produced 11 consecutive winning seasons in the 1990s and earlier this decade. With a new coach, Anthony Paradiso, at the helm and large financial backing - slightly more than $16,000 was spent on new and refurbished equipment - the Pirates hope to turn the program away from its recent downward spiral.

What makes a program change?

"It's just doing your thing, doing it your way," Haines said. "I'll step on toes, I don't care. And it's not because I'm old. Time is too short to worry about what people think about you."

Instead of worrying about others' perceptions, Haines said he concentrates on a person's character. He tries to teach a "whole-part-whole" method in which he emphasizes the big picture, then refines. Most importantly, Haines said, players need to know if a coach will fight for them but also keep them in check.

"I yell at them, but they know I love them," Haines said. "They've got to know if you'll fight for them.

"Some coaches say the hardest thing to do is get rid of a player. I think it's the easiest. The hardest thing is to discipline a player and get him back."

Keeping order

To help create a structured environment, Citrus has two-a-day practices, which Haines started two hours earlier this year - at 6 a.m. He also makes players weigh in and out before and after each practice so they know how much water they must replenish. Most importantly, he creates a routine that helps players become more focused and disciplined.

When Paradiso took over Crystal River's program, he started by cleaning up the locker room. Cleats are no longer allowed inside. Helmets must be neatly stacked and weights racked. Players must run to and from the locker room and the practice field.

During warmups, players must line up in nine lines of equal proportion. Instead of having traditional two-a-days, Paradiso decided to have two back-to-back afternoon practices, with a 30- to 45-minute break in between to simulate halftime He figures if the players can survive long practices with only a short break in between, they will be in better condition for a game.

"It's about all the little things that end up affecting the big things," Paradiso said. "When you take pride in things, it factors in when you play. It's like an assembly line where everybody is doing a little thing, but when it comes together it's a success. It's about taking responsibility and being accountable."

Building pride, chemistry

LeCours is the first to admit he is a traditionalist "who doesn't like gimmicks," but when his assistants suggested offering a steak dinner to the most consistent weightlifters this summer, he tried it.

"It's about building excitement for summer conditioning," LeCours said. "Because any coach who tells you it's not important is crazy. To get over the hump and have that tipping point, we've got to be in great shape, and it has been done in the offseason."

Ultimately, LeCours would love to have his entire team attend a summer camp together. Until then, he is trying other tactics. This summer, he divided his players into eight groups of eight for summer weight room workouts. Each group - which was named after a NFL team -had a team leader who "drafted" the rest of his team.

LeCours said he had a better attendance rate last year when 25 players made more than half the workouts. He attributes the decrease to the lack of upperclassmen this year but said the attendance has to be better if Lecanto - which has only had one winning season in 22 years - is going to have success. He knows winning programs don't happen quickly. Change can only happen if attitudes adjust and players believe.

"You just need a committed bunch of guys that take it upon themselves," LeCours said. "It's about having dedication, pride and commitment. The biggest response seems to come when a small group of players who are respected amongst their teammates lead. The players have to buy into (the program) until they buy into it. It's going to be a constant struggle."

Citrus was 1 for 4 going into the last six games of its season when Haines brought a ladder into the locker room. After every game, starting with the most recent - a 42-8 loss to South Sumter - a team's name was put on each rung.

"I had never seen anything like it," Citrus assistant Butch Miller said. "It let everyone see each game was a step up."

Maybe it had nothing to do with the ladder, but Citrus won the next five games.

Ultimately, every coach would like to consistently go to the playoffs and possibly win a state title. To do so, every coach must find his own motivational techniques to steer a program in the right direction.

"Our job," Haines said, "is to take students and athletes where they can't go by themselves."