Rare Air

Sam Chambers
What are the odds for a St. John’s football team to go undefeated?  The last time an SJS squad went undefeated was in 1977.  The first was 1950, followed by 1953 and 1976.  But don’t forget middle school. In 1974, Chuck Garwood, a former semi-pro football player, coached his 8th grade team to an undefeated season. No matter how you look at it, it’s a rare feat.  So, how about the 2014 7th grade football team?
About half the 7th Grade football players had never suited up in pads prior to August.  What are the odds that this team will prevail, when even the process of putting on the pads is daunting. Thigh pads, knee pads, girdle, hip pads, shoulder pads, shoulder pad straps and buckles, helmet, top chin strap, bottom chin strap, helmet air, snaps, mouth piece, pants, jersey, cleats, and the challenging pant belt are all part of the difficult process of being a football player.
“Threading the belt is the most tedious task in football,” said Head Varsity Coach Steve Gleaves.  “There are a lot of pieces to put together just to walk out the door to practice.  Kicking field goals is easier than suiting up sometimes.”
When the 2014 St. John’s 7th Grade Football team walked out in full regalia to their first full-pads practice in August, lead by new Head Coach Bond Millard, they already accomplished a certain victory.
“I threw a lot of passes at quarterback,” said Millard, the 1977 All Dade County leading passer (74/120, 1120 yards, 15 tds), who attended Miami Beach High School.  “The system here is the veer and the running game.   I had to make some offensive shifts to get with the program and be on the same page as the 8th grade, JV, and Varsity offensive running schemes.”
As Millard was adjusting to a running offense, the players were getting acclimated to heat, hitting, and hitching the belt.  They had two and a half weeks to get ready for their opener at River Oaks Baptist, a team that had given the Mavericks all they could handle in recent years. 
“If you are going to win them all, you’ve got to win the first one,” said assistant coach Dan Muschalik.
“It all comes down to blocking and tackling,” said Coach Millard.
Using a new “Hawk” method of tackling developed by the Seattle Seahawks, the Mavericks devoted most of their practice time to the fundamentals of the game.  They also moved to a man-to-man “Gorilla” defensive coverage versus the more conservative zone cover-three scheme.  In the second week they established a pre-practice kicking routine to take advantage of the HJPC PAT rules which award two points for a kicking PAT, and one point for a run or pass PAT.
“If you make the two point conversion with the kick it is almost like a second touchdown,” said assistant coach Jeb Ligums.  “We worked hard in practice on converting the PAT.  Field goals were not out of the question for us.”
Staying the course, the Mavericks stuck to the veer and won the opener 22-0 with two successful kicking PATs.  Passing was not part of the game plan.
St. John’s defeated Southwest Football League Shamrocks (SFL) 32-0 the following week, and almost posted another shutout against the Village School Vikings in a 32-6 win.  The Mavericks went 4-0 with a 47-0 win over St. Francis., and on a rare Saturday scheduled game, St. John’s extinguished the John Cooper Dragons 15-0.  They passed the midway point of the season at 5-0, still relying on the run offense, man-to-man defense, and a little bit of kicking.  Passing was a distant memory for Coach Millard at this point.
St. John’s next opponent, the Second Baptist Eagles, also defeated John Cooper and was undefeated along with the Kinkaid Falcons, the Mavericks last opponent of the season.  What were the odds now of this SJS team going undefeated with formidable foes ahead?
On paper it looked pretty convincing that St. John’s had a chance to run the table.  The Mavericks had scored 148 points and allowed only 6 points in five games.  Was there a weakness in the system?
“In man-to-man defense is there is no cushion on deep coverage,” said Ligums.  “An accurate passing quarterback can be tough to deal with.”
Unfortunately for the Mavericks, the Second Baptist QB was one of those passers.  After a scoreless half, the Eagles went to the air and struck first to take a 6-0 lead.  St. John’s only touchdown was on the ensuing kick off return.  Both teams missed their PAT tries, and the game was knotted at 6 going into the final period.   St. John’s could not generate enough offense on the ground, and also went to the air, but not the kind Millard grew up with. 
The Mavericks kicked a 31-yard field goal to put St. John’s up 9-6 midway in the fourth.  The Eagles responded with another air strike and their second touchdown of the game to go ahead 12-9 with three minutes to go in the game.

The Mavericks had yet to call a pass play, but Millard was getting impatient with the run against a tough Second Baptist defensive front.
“They were filling the gaps against the veer,” said Millard.  “We needed to open things up.”
The Mavericks settled for a short kick off return to get the ball at their own 40.  Against the wind, clock, and odds to stay unbeaten, St. John's still had the confidence to score--based on the practice routines they began in August, and Millard’s history of airing it out in his Dade County days.
“You’ve got to change things up if they’re not working,” said Millard.

Solid blocking and a key first down put the Mavericks in Eagle territory with a less than minute to go.  On the next play, the Mavericks ran a bootleg pass to perfection, as if Millard had thrown it himself, for a 20-yard completion to put the ball inside the Eagle 30 with just seven seconds on the clock.  

After a timeout, the Mavericks sent out the PAT team.  Block, snap, and hold were on cue. The kick sailed through the uprights as time expired for a 12-12 tie, and the undefeated season still intact.
In the next two weeks St. John’s took out SFL 28-6 followed by a 56-0 win over AOS.  The only team in the way of an undefeated season was another undefeated team--Kinkaid.  The Falcons had defeated Second Baptist two weeks prior and swaggered on to Skip Lee Field for the season finale.  On paper they had the upper hand with an outright victory over Second Baptist.
After Kinkaid recovered an on-sides kick off on the first play of the game,  the Falcons grabbed the momentum, but the St. John’s team defense held their ground and forced a four and out.  St. John’s scored on their first drive to take a 6-0 lead, and did not look back going up on the Falcons 24-0 at the half.  Kinkaid would answer on their opening  second half drive and got to within two scores.  Nevertheless, St. John’s kept responding with plays of their own, and added 18 points in the second half for a 42-24 win. 
“Most teams start to panic when the lead margin begins to decrease, but these kids never panicked. They just played harder and harder,” said assistant coach Andrew Stewart.  “The measure of a great team is doing the right things consistently, and the 7th grade football team defined consistency week after week with their play."
With a consistent training approach, a mixture of air and ground on offense, and a stalwart defense, the 2014 7th Grade St. John’s Football team defied the odds to go undefeated, all with their chin straps snapped, their pads in the right places, and each belt loop threaded to completion.
It was proof of the old sports adage, “Take care of the small things, and the big things will take care of themselves.”
Sam Chambers- Athletic News

Team photo:
Back row:  Head Coach Bond Millard, #64 Andrew Smith, #44 Will Skinner, #42 Beckett Vine, #12 Lucas Desjardins, #83 Dre Arreola, # 80 Will Leger, #65 Miller Humphreys, # 41 Peter Cannon, Assistant Coach Jeb Ligums
Middle row: Assistant Coach Andrew Stewart, # 31 Michael Musallam, # 32 William Urdahl, # 50 Will Heilmann, # 10 Sam Finney, #33 Jackson Masterson, # 55 Ben Morris, # 74 Will Sampson, #25 Drew Woodcox, # 40 Jack Curtin, Assistant Coach Sam Chambers
Front row: # 30 Aloye Oshotse, #11 Sam Askew, #75 Scotty Malcolm, # 20 Jackson Heijmen, # 13 Thomas Grannen, #52 Davis Rae, # 24 Chad Faykus, # 21 Cameron Howley, # 23 Cameron Mudd, # 60 Stuart Wallace, # 22 Will McKone, Not pictured: #54 Daniel Schann