Learning best by teaching: Kennett football program soars to new heights in 2019
● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
It is a little more than one hour's drive from Cheltenham to Kennett Square, and late in the evening of Nov. 15, Kennett head football coach Lance Frazier boarded a bus that would take him, his players and his coaches, back home.
Frazier sat beside his offensive coordinator and long-time mentor Ray Bias. They discussed the team's 42-20 loss that night to top-seeded Cheltenham in the District I 5A semifinals, and as the bus rolled past Wyncote, Plymouth Meeting and King of Prussia, Frazier and Bias scrolled through a series of self-critical What Ifs?:
What if we executed better on offense?
What if we capitalized on their mistakes?
What if we passed the ball more?
What if we ran more?
As the team bus veered onto Route 202 south and eventually returned to Kennett Square, Frazier's thoughts shifted from second-guessing to quiet reflection. His mind rolled back the game film on the freshly-concluded season, one that had led Kennett to a 9-1 record in the Ches-Mont, an 11-2 overall record, a semifinal appearance in the District playoffs, and the stunning and spectacular arrival of a football program that some believed would never come.
“The competitor in me was looking at what we could have done better to win that game,” Frazier said recently at the weight room facility at Kennett High School. “At the end of the day, you come up with the belief that the guys on the other side of the field were a pretty good football team, and they were the number one seed for a reason.
“In the back of my mind, however, I was thinking about how far we had come as a program – as an entire team of coaches and players and community – and the amount of joy and pride that I had, and the feeling of being the proud coach and father to my son, Kalen.”
A quick fly-over of Kennett's 2019 season serves as a highlight reel of a program that was resurrected in 2005, recorded some competitive seasons, but otherwise sputtered for years in a revolving door of coaches and community disinterest. What began on Aug. 23 with a 36-14 win against Oxford soon became a whirlwind of success that included wins over Chichester, Bayard Rustin and a 27-13 defeat of Unionville on Sept. 13 – the first victory over the Indians in school history.
Save for a 43-14 loss at East High School on Oct. 4, the regular season continued unblemished, with victories over Sun Valley and Henderson, and shutouts of Great Valley and St. Mark's to end the regular season with an 8-1 record and a place near the top of the Ches-Mont American.
Seeded fourth in the PIAA District I Class 5A playoffs, the Blue Demons blew past Chichester, 31-0 on Nov. 1 in the opening round, and on a frigid night on Nov. 8, they recorded a 20-14 overtime win against Strath Haven in the district quarterfinals.
On Nov. 15, in the parking lot at Kennett High School, fans packed tight into three buses for the ride to Cheltenham.
It was a season filled with stars and playmakers: running back Garrett Cox, who finished his senior year as the Blue Demons' all-time leading rusher; junior quarterback Sam Forte, who engineered a well-balanced offense; sophomore wide receiver Kalen Frazier, who simply outran his opponents to his receptions; receivers Zack Good and Tommy Patrissi, who snagged crucial catches that kept drives alive; and the steady foot of kicker Ryan Barker, whose accuracy led to several timely field goals.
They weren’t alone. Ask any coach of any successful team sport and he or she will say that while it is right to give credit to the team's playmakers, the real reason for their success has nearly everything to do with the play of a team's so-called “warriors,” an often overlooked group that are referred to in football terms as “the guys in the trenches.”
All season long, Forte had time to find his receivers and Cox was given holes to run through because of the work of center John Colamarino, guards Sam Davidson and Shawn Carroll, and tackles Matt O'Keefe and James Freeberry. On defense, this same group was joined by Buzzy Hertz, Vincent Cresci and others to form a big blue wall that shut down nearly every offensive drive all season.
All season long, they stood down offensive and defensive lines who were far taller, far heavier and outranked them in natural ability.
“When I got here in 2018, one of my coaches told me, 'Coach Frazier, we have a junior varsity line. These guys have not taken one varsity snap, and they’re undersized.' Fast forward to this year, and these guys worked harder than anybody. The guys who have the most passion on our team are those guys. It goes back to where they envisioned themselves being as high school football players.
“These kids never thought they'd be big enough or athletic enough, but it was their will to seize their opportunity. They used their five-eight, one sixty-five frames against six-five dudes who were two fifty and gave it all they had. They're our fighters.”
“You could say [the 2019 season] was 'Right place, right time,'” said Forte. “We really had a lot of skill players and a lot of guys in the trenches as well, but we all just believed that we could win, and that stems from Coach Frazier and our staff. They had the best game plans that you could imagine, and they were also great personal coaches, as well. When that happens, it brings you closer as a team.”
It was a fully inclusive team, too. Katie LaCosta, who also played on the girls’ soccer team, served as the team’s back-up kicker; and Ryan Wright split time between the football team and the school's marching band, lining up in formation with his fellow band members while in his football uniform.
“When we open the door to every young player who wants or needs to be a part of the program, we truly become a welcoming community,” Frazier said. “In the end, it's not about us coaches. It's about them. If that kid needs us, then come on in.”
The Rustin loss in 2018
While Kennett’s success in 2019 is fully deserving of its accolades, ask any coach or player who was on the team during the 2018 season to pinpoint the moment when the program turned around and they will likely give the same answer.
The loss against Rustin.
Frazier, formerly an associate in the school’s library and now the administrative assistant to Athletic Director Sean Harvey, was hired in 2018 as the team’s new head football coach. His resume and football experience positively glowed: After a four-year career as a cornerback at West Virginia University, Frazier had a nine-year professional career that included stops with the Green Bay Packers, the Baltimore Ravens, the Dallas Cowboys, the Seattle Seahawks' NFL Europe franchise the Cologne Centurions and six seasons in the Canadian Football League.
When he walked onto the Kennett practice field to see his team for the first time, Frazier saw a group of teenagers who were both enthusiastic and undisciplined – wild horses whose energy needed to be channeled. On the other side of the ball, the players were both hopeful of Frazier’s arrival, and slightly suspicious; the team had burned through a series of coaches in the past few seasons, and while they aimed to impress Frazier, they silently wondered if he was just the latest in a series of one-year commitments.
“I saw a group of guys who wanted the 2018 season to work out so badly,” Frazier said. “I could feel the letdown of the past seasons, the pain of being given up on by coach after coach after coach. Slowly, though, I began to believe that they felt like I would be the coach who will stick around and care for them.”
Rather than attempt to puncture the wall with just play formations, Frazier and his coaching staff set out to develop relationships, not just players.
“We needed to teach these guys how to compete, and teach them how to play the game correctly,” he said. “You begin by valuing them as people. I encouraged my staff to understand the power of relationships with young people. They had to have the same mindset when it came to developing young men.
“We were able to grasp onto what we were teaching them simply by how we were able to make them feel, how we talked to them and how we approached our job in terms of doing what’s best for them. Then we saw them begin to believe in themselves.”
“We had been waiting for that coach to help send us on our way to success,” said Forte, whose brother Luke was a four-year member of the team. “Everyone in Chester County just found out this season how good Garrett Cox is, but the rest of the team has known since the seventh grade that Garrett was a beast, and that guys like Vincent Cresci and Tommy Parissi could play at a high level, but we needed someone like Coach Frazier to allow us to realize that we can even be better than we thought we could be.
“He kept telling us, 'You will be successful, but let me show you how successful you can be.' The coaching staff helped Coach Frazier get us further than we had ever imagined.”
The 2018 season began with a 0-4 record, and during halftime of the Rustin game, Kennett was down 20-0. In a despondent locker room, Frazier looked for anything that would cause a spark to ignite his team.
He found it in the make-up of his senior players.
“The senior guys would not allow that locker room to quit,” he said. “They told their teammates, 'Guys, we are this close.’ You have to know that these were the guys who would be in tears after our early losses, but they would not allow this team to shut down.”
The Blue Demons mounted a furious second-half effort that left them just short of a victory, but after the game, instead of allowing the team to return to the locker room, Frazier kept the team on the field, and told them to turn their attention to a jubilant Rustin team on the other side of the stadium.
“I told them 'You saw what just happened?'” he said. “I told them ‘Remember this, because we're going to go to Sun Valley next week, and we're gonna kick their butts.’”
The next week, Kennett defeated Sun Valley, 35-14. The 2018 team embarked on a winning streak, finished with a record of 4-6 and earned an entry in the District I 5A playoffs.
The Kennett High School football program had officially begun.
“After the Sun Valley win, we went 4-2, and lost to a tough Unionville team by three points and beat Great Valley, when no one thought we would beat them,” Cox recalled. “We began to get used to winning, and I firmly believe that winning is a habit.
“The season meant a lot to the seniors especially, because it was nice to have a coach to be with us for a year or two, because we never had that before,” Cox added. “We began to play not only for ourselves, but for our coaches. The team has all been with each other since we were very little, so we all have stuck together, and 2019 was the year when we finally realized that we could do something special, so we went out there and played with our heart.”
‘We learn best by teaching’
There is a well-marked white board in the training room at Kennett High School that is smudgy with players’ names, Xs and Os and various strategies – an inked-up spitball of ideas for Frazier and his coaches to use.
In the common vernacular of sports-lingo, one lingering quote will follow Kennett’s football program from this season to the pre-season summer camps in 2020: “You are only as good as your last performance,” leading to the presumption that at some point in the near future, Frazier will wipe the white board clean of all references to this past season, and start all over.
“We have been so focused on how to build a program, we have to figure out how to do what a championship football team does,” he said. “We spend a great deal of time defining what that looks like, and a large part of our jobs as coaches are getting our guys to understand what winning programs do. We know football, but it doesn't matter how much we know if they can’t receive it from us. It’s our main priority to present ourselves to these men and tell them who we are.”
From 2006 to 2012, Frazier was a cornerback for the Saskatchewan Rough Riders in the Canadian Football League. For three of those seasons, he played under defensive coordinator Gary Etcheverry, whose coaching style, Frazier said, thrived on the minimal. Playbooks were forbidden at meetings. Players were expected to memorize the defensive formations simply by what he was showing them on the chalkboard and on the practice field.
At first, Frazier thought Etcheverry’s tactics were high-schoolish, but he eventually latched on to Etcheverry’s message, which made the Roughriders’ defense among the best in the CFL, and led to two Grey Cup finals.
“He always used to tell us, ‘We learn best by teaching,’” Frazier said. “His style of preparation prepared me for this job more than anyone else. He always believed in a simple-minded approach that stressed no materials. He taught his defense that we're forced to communicate with each other on the field, and it forced us to remain on the same page. It forced us to our own responsibilities.
“With this principle, I'm teaching my teammate what I have learned, and I'm also teaching him what he's responsible for, and before I can do what I need to do, I need to know what he knows.”
It’s a philosophy Frazier continues to bring to the weight room, the practice field, to Kennett Stadium and opposing team’s fields, and yes, to the white board.
“The culture is strongly in place here,” he said. “As we prepare for next season, we want to be in a position where we can grow and tweak this program to the point where we can say, 'This is Kennett football.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email email@example.com.
The 2019 Kennett High School Football Coaching Staff
Ray Bias, offensive coordinator
Wayne Bruhn, special teams and linebackers coordinator
Nelson Drew, running backs and linebackers coordinator
Lance Frazier, head coach, defensive backs and wide receivers coordinator
Scott Gee, defensive coordinator
Will Hendle, quarterbacks and cornerbacks coordinator
Jermaine Richardson, offensive/defensive line coordinator
John Salvatore, offensive and defensive line coordinator