"Confidence is contagious"
COACH VINCE LOMBARDI
I was born in San Jose, CA in 1984 and moved to Pleasanton when I was two years old. Football was in my DNA, I guess. My father and a number of uncles played football, two of them in the NFL. My brother and some cousins played college football. Of course, I grew up playing the game, but football wasn’t the only sport in my life. I also went out for baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, and swimming.There was hardly a major sport that I wasn’t interested in playing.
In 2013 I married Megan Muccio. Her folks are Discovery Bay residents, so we were married at the Discovery Bay Country Club. We moved to Discovery Bay the next year. I was teaching and coaching at Dougherty Valley High in San Ramon and in 2016 moved up to the head coaching job at Livermore High. We had a good, year. Even though we finished 6–6, it was the first time in 19 years that the Cowboys didn’t have a losing season. We had some memorable games, won a playoff game and beat our long-time rivals at home. We were all looking forward to the next season when I imagined we would move up in the win/loss column — perhaps all the way up.
But then the head coach position at Liberty opened up and Curtis Cunningham, the Athletic Director at that time, reached out to me. The interview went fine and they were going to make me an offer, but I wasn’t interested in leaving the Livermore program that was building for success. However, when Megan learned of it, she informed me that I simply hadn’t figured out that I really was interested, so she cleared the matter up for me.
The Liberty High Lions have been playing football since 1914. They were usually a mediocre team. Jeff Walters had led the Lions to their only NCS playoff victory in school history.
However, a football team begins each new season with a clean slate. Attitude is the largest factor in any sport, and I was confident that we would have a remarkable season. “Confidence is contagious,” Coach Lombardi said. He also said that wanting to win is everything. I had both those things covered because I was confident that we could win and really wanted to do so. Fortunately, the kids were wonderful. From the beginning they bought into the message we were selling. They were good athletes and hungry for success. It didn’t hurt, of course, that I had some amazing talent on the team. I had two super-star receivers, Sione Vaki, Zane Hinojosa, and a bunch of other dudes!
One of my smarter moves that first season was to retain the services of Brian Reel as my defensive coordinator. Brian was a Liberty alumnus and had been a member of the coaching staff for seven years. Brian provided invaluable lessons about the team and about the community. I also retained Rod Beaver as my offensive line coach. Rod was another alumnus who had been part of Liberty High for five decades many of them in a coaching role. Both were full of knowledge about the school, ingrained in the community, with hearts filled with passion for helping kids, a sense of empathy, and willing-to-do-anything attitudes.
Every football program begins with the players. The bottom line is to create a strong team first mentality. When you build deep and rich relationships with members of a team, they will run through a wall for you.
In coaching as in every other part of life, you really can attract more bees with honey than with vinegar, so we approached the players with an attitude of respect. We dedicated countless off-the-field hours to team-building efforts. We held BBQs and swimming outings at my in-laws’ on-the-water Discovery Bay home. We established a culture of service and love, and created teamwork by bringing players to the point where, as Coach Lombardi said about his Packers, “they didn’t do it for individual glory. They did it because they loved one another.”
Community service became a fundamental element in our team-building efforts. Team members volunteered in a number of community service projects. For example, every year they would work together to set up hundreds of yards of temporary fencing for downtown festivals. They hosted camps at Ohmstede Field for elementary kids. They volunteered with the Newberry’s BLOCK nonprofit organization in providing scholarship and sports equipment to underprivileged young athletes.
A special relationship grows between people who are working side-by-side in some project to make the world a better place. Relationships quickly strengthen and team spirit evolves into a vital force.
That first summer the kids would spend 12–15 hours a week on campus, but I was there fulltime most days, and overtime on some. I filled my hours by meeting with coaches and players, managing practices, conducting equipment inventories, spending time with people from the community, meeting with school administrators, and performing the hundred other tasks that running a football program entails.
Brian Reel played an ongoing role in helping me understand “the lay of the land” and learning the processes and procedures that made our program, the school, and the community work. I learned that Heather Harper, the rookie principal that year, shared my ideals and values, my kids-first attitude, and my competitive spirit. She wanted to win and to do it right as much as I did.
Following the procedure used by NFL teams, we began preparations for the 2016 season with a “combine” in which we recorded the strength, speed, and agility of each team member. We began to develop our playbook during spring ball and conducted a rigorous summer program devoted to daily workouts in the weight room and running drills. We had no signature plan of attack because I want to be able to change my style of play on the fly as each game would progress, so I developed a multiple offense incorporating spread concepts with various formations and groupings. Fall camp was 3 weeks long with intense weight room sessions practices, and competitions. By the time we went on the field for the first game of the season we felt ready to win some ball games.
That first season was a roller coaster ride. There were some low points, including a truly miserable game when our long-term rivals, Pittsburg, shut us out 35–0. We hadn’t beaten them in a number of years, so this was a particularly bitter loss. However, the next Monday I met with the team and we agreed to put the loss behind us. They cheered when I said, “Let’s win a championship!” We won the next five games, finished the season 11–2, and took home the Division 1 NCS title.
"Traveling, practicing, eating meals, and sleeping in a gym brought us together as brothers. We become more of a FAMILY than a team"
Winning that title was an awesome accomplishment, it was the first championship in school history since the playoff format. The kids put Liberty Football on the map. We ended the season full of hope for the future and were soon working towards an even better 2018-2019 season.
We started by winning every contest in summer ball, at the San Jose State 7 on 7 tournament, and the team earned multiple accolades at the Lake Tahoe Football Camp. We were playing like winners. Ninety-five of us made the trip to Tahoe together. Traveling, practicing, eating meals, and sleeping in a gym brought us together as brothers. We became more of a FAMILY than a team.
We went into the second season with a crew of seasoned players led by quarterback Jay Butterfield, running back Tyerell Sturges-Cofer, and receiver Sione Vaki. The fans were awesome. Alumni, school board members, and school staff personnel were loud and enthusiastic boosters. Brentwood is famous for its corn, of course, so our motto became “Corn Country Travels Well.” We had a bleacher full of cheering Lion fans at every away game. We dominated in most of our games, beginning with defeating Vacaville 35–10 in our opening home game. The next week we crushed Gilroy 57–0. On September 28 we were tied 21-21 with Freedom in the third quarter but added 34 more points before posting a final 55-21 win. The next week we shut out Antioch 52–0. A high point occurred on October 19 when we washed the bitter taste of that 35–0 loss out of our mouths by beating the Pittsburg Pirates 24–21.
We started strong in the playoffs by beating Clayton Valley 42–14. However, our low point came in a heart-rending loss against the De La Salle Spartans. We jumped out to a hopeful 7–0 lead. However, we never scored again and ended up losing the game 42–7. Nevertheless, we earned an open-division runner-up pass to the NorCal Championship game and played against Valley Christian High on their field. It was a beautiful location on top of a hill. The game was an epic battle, which we won 33–21.
The win sent us on to Cerritos College in Los Angeles to play Sierra Canyon in the State Championship Bowl. We had more fans in the bleachers on our side than the home team did on theirs. Sierra Canyon is an elite school with the nation’s #1 basketball team and a number of celebrities among their alumni.
It was an awesome day of football. We were down 17–7 in the third quarter. However, momentum changed when linebacker Ethan Dumond recovered a fumble. Our running back, Tyerell Sturges-Cofer, who was finishing his second 1,000-plus yards season, rushed for 198 yards, and scored our three touchdowns. During the heart-stopping final moments, the score was 19–17, Sierra Canyon was driving for the win but was stopped at our 37-yard line when our safety, Sione Vaki, stopped a fourth-and-three attempt with 4:14 left in the game.
The excitement still wasn’t over. Adrik Lamar kept our last drive alive on third-and-six with a 19-yard catch. Four plays later Sturges-Cofer made a heart-stopping 6-yard dash on fourth-and-three, to get first down and run out the clock.
It was a wonderful win to end a tremendous season. The Brentwood PD provided our bus with a police escort on our return. When we stepped down from the bus and I held the trophy high over my head, it was a wonderful moment for the city and for the team.
However, we aren’t intending to rest on our laurels. Like every successful coach, I can’t wait for next season. We’re expecting to repeat.
Photos By Deanne Glidt *P.M.Sports