Part 1 of 2 parts. Part 2 tomorrow.
When Christian Pierce was named head coach of the Calabasas football team in March of 2011, he was already behind the eight-ball.
It was too late to make wholesale changes to the off-season regimen the Coyotes had already started, which would mean the 2011 season would be somewhat compromised.
But notwithstanding the somewhat late notice of his promotion from assistant to head coach, Pierce seems to have accomplished his most important goal in less than a season and a half at the helm of the Calabasas program.
"The first year we spent a lot of time in the transition and we knew that it would be a very tough transition year," he said. "And our goal has always been to create a winning culture here at Calabasas.
"And so, in doing that, we had to have some things happen," Pierce said. "We brought in a very good coaching staff. The most important thing to me was to have a coaching staff and players that buy into my philosophy."
One thing Pierce knew that would not be compromised, though, in the attempt to turn around the arguably moribund program, was to continue to make sure that his players' education came first.
"But even with academics as the most important thing, on the football field we can and will be competitive," he said. "The support we've gotten from the kids and their families has been huge."
Last year, Calabasas won only one game, a win over Granada Hills. A loss to Agoura, which in essence, assured both teams would finish 1-9 overall, still sticks in Pierce's craw somewhat, because a late interception that was returned for a touchdown that could have led the Coyotes to a comeback win, was called back due to what some thought a dubious penalty call.
But there were bound to be bumps in the road
This season, for instance, Calabasas stands at 1-2 as it heads into Friday night's home game against Simi Valley. Pierce thinks the Coyotes could have, maybe should have, won their opener against Saugus.
That, even though the Coyotes have played shorthanded due to injuries and players not yet academically eligible in their first three games. But the 18-15 loss was at least palatable.
"We had a couple of calls that didn't go our way, but that's just football," Pierce said. "I tell you what, though, even in that loss, I am a firm believer in what (legendary former Dallas Cowboys coach) Tom Landry said. That 'Defeat is when you learn your lessons, not in victory.'
"And although we lost by three points, I was more proud of that game, and the players, than I have been in the last two seasons. They just fought. They didn't give up. A couple of bad breaks, (and we) lose by three. But the effort was outstanding."
Against Simi Valley (2-1) Friday, Calabasas' team - Pierce says the 57-man roster is the most ever at the school - should finally be a full strength.
"The enthusiasm is high, the coaching staff is dedicated, so we're excited about the (remainder) of the upcoming season," Pierce said.
The loss to Saugus was during Zero Week, when some teams played while others didn't have their season openers till the following week. And actually, the game was played on August 23, one day before most Week Zero games.
After a bye the next week, Calabasas travelled to Simi Valley to play Royal High. The final score seems deceptive to hear Pierce talk about the 37-7 loss.
"Again, we were a little banged up (with injuries)," he said. "We didn't have a full squad of players. But that's just part of the game."
Three plays that went against the Coyotes really hurt
"We had two touchdowns called back (due to penaltes) and a 78-yard punt return called back," Pierce said. "It puts you in a bad situation trying to recoup from that."
The two TDs that were nullified were on long runs from scrimmage. Pierce says one was about 90 yards, the other about 78. In addition, on the long punt return, the penalty had no bearing on the play, so the confluence of events was frustrating and demoralizing for his players.
"They're out there competing and when you have high school kids that haven't had a track record of winning back-to-back-to-back, you've got to motivate them and keep them moving.
"Those three things happened in a short period of time," said Pierce. "I think two were in the first quarter, one in the second quarter. It takes the wind of these guys' sails, you know? And so, it's a very difficult thing to try to motivate these kids (after that)."
Still, down 17-0 at halftime, Pierce thought his team was still very much in the game.
"But the kids just couldn't get it together," he said. "So the Royal game was a lesson is perserverance. A lesson that things don't always go your way, but you still have to go through the adversity.
"To me, footall is a metaphor for life," Pierce added. "And overcoming adversity is what it's about. So those lessons we learnd the first two games."
The hard work and adversity finally pay off at home
Finally, in Calabasas' third game, which maybe not coincidentally, was also its first home game of the 2012 season, things came together for the Coyotes againt an Oak Park team that was riding a two-game winning streak.
"We were prepared," Pierce said. "We had a great week of practice. We still didn't have our full squad and we got scored on first - we have a habit of starting slow. I don't know why we do that, but these kids, they haven't had that killer instinct (right) off the bat, yet. And we've got to teach them that."
On the other hand, falling behind 7-0 to Oak Park didn't faze Calabasas, because only three games into the season, the Coyotes are comfortable fighting from behind.
"We're not worried about being down a touchdown or two," Pierce said. "We know we can put the ball in the end zone and we know that we can stop you on defense."
Calabasas (1-2) got a turnover, a fumble recovery for a touchdown to tie the score and was never threatened thereafter.
"We had a good gameplan," said Pierce, who saw his team score four unanswered second-quarter touchdowns to build a 34-7 halftime lead. "I was very pleased with how we played."
Until the third quarter, that is.
"We had a big lead in the third quarter, 44-13, or 44-7, and we let our guard down," Pierce said. "I don't like it when the other team can drive the ball for six or seven minutes.
"That tells me a couple of things: a) we're not making our adjustments properly, or b) we're (too) confident in where we are. I don't want the kids to ever be comfortable with the lead. I just don't want that. But we finished the game strong."
Final score: Calabasas 51, Oak Park 20, Anthony Wright 214
One notable aspect of the win over the Eagles was the running of tailback Anthony Wright, a junior transfer from Crespi of Encino. Wright had run for 61 and 38 yards in the first two games of the season.
But against Oak Park, Wright broke out for 214 yards in 24 carries (9.0 yards per run), and scored three TDs.
These were Wright's first three games on the varsity level. The question had to be asked, after a 214-yard output rushing in only his third game, is it likely we'll be seeing Wright get more touches on offense from here on out.
"I rotate the tailbacks based upon scenarios and based upon their energy level," said Pierce. "If they're tired, we keep a close eye on them. And we have another guy that can put the ball in the end zone, too. Daniel Clay." Clay is a senior.
Pierce also has Marshall Faulk as a fullback. Faulk, the son of legendary NFL running back, Marshall Faulk, is a fullback who can run, but who can also block, something he learned to do when he was playing the line earlier in his Calabasas career.
Part of what Pierce is concerned about is making sure that Wright is not overworked.
"He's a junior. He's strong. He's a good runner," Pierce said about Wright. "But I just want to make sure he's healthy and that we can get the most out of him. You know, we have another 17 games with this kid (counting next year), so we're excited about it."
In Part 2, tomorrow, we'll discuss how the Marmonte League's new format will affect the Coyotes and who are the other key players who will lead the team.