Is there a secret formula for building a winning high school football program?
West coach Tim Davis thinks it's as simple as being lucky enough to have a team full of great players. But a look at this weekend's large-school state semifinalists reveals a trend that provides fodder for arguing other possibilities.
This is the fourth straight season West and Service have each made the semifinals. Service (7-2), where Davis was an assistant coach before taking the helm at West in 2009, can reach its fourth straight state title game with a win over Dimond (4-5) on Saturday. West (7-2) will take on Palmer (7-2) on Friday.
West and Service have both won state titles in the last three seasons, with West claiming its first state title by defeating Service in the 2010 final and the Cougars winning their sixth championship against South in 2011.
Spread the offense
Both teams use a spread offense, a scheme that uses multiple-receiver sets. Service coach Kevin Kern, in his first season as head coach and 11th season with the program, said the spread was installed about seven years ago. Davis gleaned much of what he knows about the spread from Service and took his version to West five seasons ago.
"We have the ability to break off bigger plays, because through the air you can do a lot more things than on the ground," said Service quarterback C.J. Toomer, who is getting close to surpassing the unofficial single-season passing record held by 2013 West graduate Conor Feckley.
"With the Service and West offense, you can break off big plays on accident, almost."
Toomer said one such accidental play occurred in Service's 55-34 win over Chugiak last weekend, when Eric Jones caught a pass intended for Monti Bibbs. Both receivers ran seam routes across the middle of the field and Toomer's pass went through Bibbs' outstretched hands and into the arms of Jones, who completed the play with a long run for a score.
Moose stay grounded
Teams that rely heavily on the run rarely, if ever, get such fortuitous touchdowns, but can still win plenty of games.
Palmer, West's opponent Friday, is in the playoffs for the 14th straight season and hoping to reach its first state title game since finishing runner-up to Juneau in 2007. The Moose run the ball relentlessly and have done so the latter half of this season without their top runner.
James Nisbett led Palmer in rushing as a junior last season, but a knee injury ended his senior season early. Senior runner Vincent Aumavae has filled in nicely, totalling more than 350 yards in Palmer's last two games. He helped the Moose to a first-round playoff win over defending state champion South last weekend, even though Palmer quarterback Zeth Merritt turned the ball over four times in the first half.
So if the scheme isn't the secret to success, maybe coaching consistency is.
Palmer coach Rod Christiansen has been in charge for all 14 playoff runs and has worked with primarily the same bunch of assistant coaches.
"They are tacticians of the game and they love the kids and they are a cohesive group of coaches who have been together for a long time," Davis said, "and that makes for a powerful, powerful thing, because they are all on the same page.
"Their chemistry can't be understated as coaches and that translates into love for the kids."
The importance of developing relationships with players is one of the most important lessons the 30-year-old Davis learned at age 18 when he started coaching at Service. As he moved from C team coach to JV coach to varsity assistant, he grew close to players progressing through the ranks with him.
"I realized there's something more to this than teaching kids how to run into each other," Davis said. "We surrounded ourselves here with coaches that believe the same thing, and it's kind of just evolved over the last five years."
Seniors Lui Faamasino and Jake Faualo both love playing for West and attest to a family-like atmosphere that grows with each season. Faamasino, who led the CIC in rushing during the regular season, said the lessons about football and life start from the time a player is a freshman on the C team and carry on through the end of a player's school days.
"They do a really good job of guiding us through football, life and school," Faamasino said. "I love playing for these coaches."
Faualo, a running back and linebacker, has battled a knee injury throughout most of this season, but is regaining his strength in recent weeks. The coaches were there to help him with his recovery and never let him give up.
"Our coaches don't sleep," Faualo said. "They focus so much on us, that we have to give back to them by playing hard."
Stick with the program
Service applies a similar approach, teaching the same schemes and philosophies from C team to varsity.
Kern is the third head coach in three seasons at Service, following Numi Ilalio and Jason Caldarera, who is still the athletic director. Aside from the head coaching changes, the overall coaching staff hasn't changed much, Kern said.
"The main reason I took this job this year was for the integrity of the team, because I didn't want somebody to come in and run the wing-T, or run the wishbone or something like that," Kern said.
"These kids have worked hard to perfect what we do and so it was important to me to allow these kids to continue with that success, and I think that's the reason we are successful this year."
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
By JEREMY PETERS