Panthers put keys to defense in two dynamic coordinators
It's the Wednesday before the Hoosick Falls Central School football team's Class C state semifinal matchup against Section I Rye Neck.
As the Panthers hold its defense-oriented practice at the Strong Brothers dome, Hoosick Falls coach Ron Jones doesn't seem to pay that much attention -- something he's done for the past three years, always on Wednesdays.
That's when defensive coordinator Chris Fleming and assistant defensive coordinator Eamonn DeGraaf have everything under control.
Since 2009, the two have worked in concert with little input from Jones -- who focuses primarily on the offensive side of the ball -- and the specialization has paid major dividends as Hoosick Falls heads into its fourth state semifinal in 5 years.
"There's been weeks in the past where we all break down film together and Chris had seen that process already," Jones said. "He took that process and morphed it into [his] own. If you ask [me] what Rye Neck does, I can tell you what I saw through the camera lens [at the game]."
Everything came into focus in 2009. Fleming had been offensive coordinator since 2000 for the Panthers, while Bill Bartolotta was the defensive coordinator. In 2009, Bartolotta left the job and Jones offered it to Fleming, who accepted immediately. The year before, DeGraaf came on staff as a volunteer coach, coming to Hoosick Falls as a technology teacher after graduating from Oswego State.
"[The relationship's] blossomed over the years, for sure. [Eamonn's] such a young guy that when he first came on, he's such a sharp guy, he was absorbing things at first, learning what we were doing," Fleming said. "As each year has gone on, he's been spot on. I can't think of anyone better to work with, we kind of feed off each other."
Jones then paired the two as defensive coaches when DeGraaf, 28, became a paid coach and things clicked.
"Chris is super organized and a very good coach, he could coach at the college level. He was the obvious choice [to switch to defense]," said Jones, who is 108-53 in 17 years leading Hoosick Falls. "Eamonn came along and he was really committed from the first year, established a great rapport with the kids. He had immediate respect but they like him too. He had both as a young guy.
"I wanted to give Chris somebody strong also, I've done offense for a while, and I felt comfortable to take a young new guy and see that he was interested in it," Jones continued. "They partnered up and become really close friends. They work well together. They're a little like brothers, get after each other a little bit, but when you put this much time in together, that happens."
In 2010, a conversation with a parent made the splitting of the roles permanent.
"We were down a volunteer coach and I talked with a parent who said I didn't see the junior varsity much," Jones said. "I thought about it and he was right. So I made the decision that during team defense, I would work with the JV. It's been three years like that, but if we weren't on the same page, it wouldn't work."
The philosophy is college-oriented, where coordinators focus on offense, defense or special teams only. It's been extremely successful -- in the past five years, Hoosick Falls hasn't lost in Section II and have a 56-3 record overall with Fleming and DeGraaf leading the defense.
"It's year 5 now and things fell into place ... we work so well together," said DeGraaf. "Ron trusts us greatly, he doesn't ask us a whole lot of questions about what we're doing ... he lets us go and do what we want.
"Ron believes in what we do. Sometimes we show him the gameplan at the beginning of the week, sometimes we don't. He wants us to implement it, which allows him to prepare the younger kids to become varsity players. The same thing happens with Chris during offensive [team period]. It really helps the younger kids down the road."
Fleming said the specialization has made things that much easier for him when working out a gameplan on a weekly basis.
"To me, it's benefited us so much just having Ron concentrate on the offense with [Jake] Colliano, and myself and Eamonn concentrate on the defense, really just honed in on our specialty," Fleming said, who as a coordinator has 98 wins with the Panthers. "It just helped our program overall, being able to do that. It's been a heck of a run. Him and I have gotten to the point now where we think so much alike, we're right on with our thinking how we want to approach a team and what we want to do defensively."
The two are friends away from the football field as well. Both are teachers in the school district.
"We do things together outside of school. It makes it easier to come together and gameplan, we bounce things off each other all year," DeGraaf said. "It meshes well together, we take each other's input into account, that's what making things work right now."
And as with any successful marriage, there's fighting sometimes.
"Eamonn and I are friends, nice to work with friends, but we're like brothers," Fleming said. "We'll fight about stuff ... if you hear us during the game, there's bickering going on. We're intense, but in the end we have the same goal."
This season, the twosome's defense might be the best yet, even after the state championship. The Panthers have allowed 33 points in 10 contested games this season, an average of 3.3 per game. Even more impressively, the only points allowed in the first three quarters of any game were the six scored by Ogdensburg in the second stanza of the state quarterfinals.
"To be totally honest we plan every week the same, it's almost tedious how we do things," Fleming said. "It's routine, it doesn't matter if we're playing a winless team or [for] the state title, the process and amount of time is exactly the same."
At the same time, it's the players who have made Fleming, DeGraaf and the rest of the Panther coaching staff successful.
"We've had a lot of talent, but also a lot of kids that immerse themselves in the mental part of the game," Fleming said. "They enjoy the gameplanning end of it, they come down, they study it, they really care about the X's and O's of the game, which is huge, it makes our lives that much easier."
"We start off the year basic and we morph [the gameplan] every week, give them a new one every week and they study it like homework," DeGraaf said.
The ability to be flexible is extremely important, Jones said.
"It's one of the great things about them. Instead of saying that we have to line up on the nose and the tackles and that's just the way it's done, we work on how to play to a Mike Mattat's advantage or Jake Bakaitis or even a Levi Brewster," Jones said. "They come up with some unconventional looks -- especially in the state championship game. It would have taken me the week of studying to figure out how I [would] want to attack that."
The hands-off approach works as well during games as it does during practice.
"It's so rare to call over [the headset] to those guys," Jones said. "It's usually, ‘Have you tried this?' and [the answer is yeah], so OK, see you later."
No one knows when the run will end, but Fleming, DeGraaf, Jones and the rest of the Panthers will enjoy it as long as they can.
"Chris and I have worked together for five years and we've lost three times," DeGraaf said. "It's made things easy, when we implement a game plan and the kids execute it every week, it's enjoyable and easy to do. It's easy to put the time in when you're winning, but what happens when you lose? Hopefully we don't find out for a while, though."
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