Becoming an Elite Team
Youth football coaches can learn a lot from teams and programs that dominate other sports. This years State Basketball Tournament in Nebraska offered a few prime lessons for me and I’m not even a basketball fan. Omaha Central won the state championship in the states largest class for the 7th time in 8 years. They have over 2,000 students. Ravenna High school is in one of the smallest classes with just over 150 students and won the state title in C-2, their 4th title in the last 8 years.
Central had not had much recent success in basketball until coach Eric Behrens took the reins 11 years ago. Since then they’ve been on a roll appearing in 10 state tournaments and winning 7 of them. This year ESPN ranked them as their 37th best team in the country, while Max Preps had them at 22nd. Central finished this season at 30-0, the first team in the states largest class ever to go undefeated. Why have they done so well for so long? In addition to being known for great fundamentals, coach Behrens has set the bar very high and scheduled the very best out state teams from Kansas, Iowa and Missouri to play non-league games. This isn’t something he’s done lately, it’s something he’s always done, going back to his early days of coaching AAU basketball and crossing the nation to find and compete with the nations best. In 2013 he has Oak Hill Academy on the schedule, the number one ranked high school powerhouse from Mouth of Wilson, Virginia. Most Oak Hill teams have 11-12 DI players on the roster and have been a perennial national power for decades.
Ravenna is a tiny high school of just 150 students in rural Central Nebraska. Coach Paul Beranek has built a powerhouse over the last 20 years by setting high goals and competing against the best teams in the region. His teams have won 4 of the last 8 state championships. I’ve seen his youth teams playing and competing in regional and national tournaments with just 6 or 7 players. Yes, he starts his kids playing against the best, even at age 9-10. Back in 2003 they gave one of my programs select teams a real scare, taking us to overtime after we had built a 20 point halftime lead. At that tournament he asked me if we would be willing to travel out to their place and play a football game after our fall season ended. That was back when I was coaching in Omaha, not in the rural area I’m at now near Lincoln. I took an 11-0 team that was pretty good sized and athletic against his very average team and they hung with us, we only beat them by 2 touchdowns.
At the high school level Coach Beranek always schedules to play in non-conference tournaments against teams that have anywhere from 1,000 to 2,200 students. Back in 2006 they nearly knocked off the defending largest class team in the state, Bellevue West. West at that time had over 2,000 students, more than 10 times the population of Ravenna High School. Playing better competition has definitely paid off for them.
Who cares if you lose? If the goal is to max out the potential of your team, why not play the best teams you can find? It’s difficult to get better beating teams by 30 or more points every week. Playing better competition exposes your weaknesses and if you’re playing against a well coached team, what greatness looks like. Back in 2003 my age 9-10 team was very good, but we were rolling the competition. But unlike the previous year we weren’t going to get overconfident or complacent and lose in the title game. Why? Because we played 2 extra non- conference games against 11-12 year old teams, one of which was a league champion. We won our league championship game- in a 31 team age bracket 46-12 and ended up 11-0 and won a state title. In 2005 my age 9-10 team of non-select players won a 29 team age grouping winning the title game 30-12. We kept sharp by scheduling and beating 2 very good select teams which chose from over 120 players. It wasn’t an easy decision to make and sometimes it’s not the most popular decision to make. But if you want your team to be great, scrimmage and play against great teams. Once your kids get into those scraps and see that they can compete, even in slivers of time, it gives them confidence.
If you want to make your program an elite program, set the bar high and schedule the very best teams you can play. We’ve been doing that since 2003 and it’s worked extremely well. We schedule teams from other conferences and other states, finding the very best teams available. When your kids see they can compete against the very best, playing the regular run of the mill youth team is a walk in the park.
You may be thinking, hey I can’t even win my division, how can I schedule the very best in my state or region and think my kids can compete? Coach Behrens and Beranek were in the very same boat as you. They didn’t start winning their division or league until they started thinking bigger, setting bigger goals and playing better competition.
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