Student Viewpoint: 'The road to victory was not easy'

Editor’s note: Vince Valdes is a senior at Windsor High who played wide receiver and defensive end for the undefeated Jaguars. If you are, or know of, a student at any North Coast school who is interested in writing a Student Viewpoint for PD Preps, please contact Eric Wittmershaus at eric wittmershaus@pressdemocrat.com.

By VINCE VALDES
PDPREPS.COM

When Concord ran up a quick 14 points on Windsor defense, the undefeated Jags headed to the locker room down 20-7 at halftime, but in no way were we holding our heads down. The feeling was familiar.

Yes, our backs were up against the wall and every sign was pointing toward a storybook disaster, but when was that not the case? The Jaguars were the same team that overcame a two-touchdown deficit in our SCL-decider Grape Bowl against Healdsburg, the same team whose buses never showed up to take us to a showdown against Analy, at the time the biggest game of the month.

The Windsor Jags team knew adversity; we were born, bred and built off of it — it is what fed the Jaguar creed. The same team started its season in a pit of bad luck with all the talent in the world but no one but their own distant vision to lead us. That vision, one of hoisting an NCS plaque after a season of shaking off the bumps and bruises along the way, was one most of has had since we were kids. It was a heck of a ride transforming that dream into a reality.

Six months ago, Windsor lacked a coach. Our entire team began its season not knowing of any offensive or defensive playbooks, with morning lifts having been shut down well before the previous school year ended. Many people know the Windsor Jags as the team that made history; few know the journey it took to get there. So captains took initiative, making sure our season would not go to spoils and shaking off ostensibly season-ending setbacks.

“There was 30 or so of us every morning before we knew of our coach working out in the weight room and on the field before school started, knowing in order to be the team we had always imagined that … sacrifice and dedication was necessary,” said Brady Stibi, the heart of the Jaguar defense.

Former coach Dustin Davis was a father-figure to many of us esteemed seniors, including myself. His departure to the police academy left us — a group of talented athletes — in disarray. We were just a group of 17-year old boys wondering not only how we were going to have the season we had all expected since we played in a mighty-mite championship wearing blue and gold Pop Warner uniforms, but if we were going to have a season at all.

Then along came this rowdy, riled-up coach named Rob Gatrell. Possessing a robust temperament and giant-like physique, he walked into the team room filled with a bunch of hopeless seniors and juniors, stared me in the eyes and preached one message: The Sky is the Limit.

He emphasized three words that would eventually lead us to pay dirt: assignment, alignment and execution. More than anything, though, Gatrell showed us the archetypal lesson in life that was necessary for our success: Respond to adversity. Adversity was before us, in the form of the season that in our eyes had become a distant dream. But Gatrell saw the championship as a soon-to-be reality.

The first lesson was the attack. No longer would we be dominated by a passive spread offense relying on passing to dictate the tempo of the game. It became a ground-and-pound, four quarters of helmet-to-helmet nonstop action incorporating a fullback in the formation and putting to use strength-side “inch-by-inch” running. The practice atmosphere leaned more toward losing circumstances than chocolates and roses, geared to mentally prepare a team for what we would do when our backs are up against a wall. This same coach, who took over a week before spring ball began, easily gained the respect and admiration of all those who believed in his plan.

Slowly, the plan started to become reality. The Windsor Jags, to the awe of bystanders, started winning games. Early routs of Montgomery and Heritage put the team on the map as one not to be tempered with. Abundant talent. A stout defense led by all-league veterans Stibi and Darrian Roman and an offense that was showing it could hold its end of the bargain, led by McAlvain, Richardson and company. The biggest fear in opponents did not spring up from when they were down but more when they were up — because if you got comfortable on the football field with 11 Jags, you would be awakened by a “Havoc!” or “Boom!”

The wins accumulated, but the mindset never changed. We walked onto the practice field like it was day one all over, with no wins or losses. More than anything, we bonded as a unit, withstanding the trials before us.

Taylor Biaggi, having had his breakout year gaining county and even Empire notoriety, mentioned his fondest moment was the night before the SCL championship game against Casa.

“Coach pulled all the seniors in the room and reiterated why we played this game, more for hope, faith and love than anything else. To start from where we did and be able to experience the success that we have had, it’s simply unbelievable.”

That was the type of guy Gatrell is. He purely loves the game and would not let his team lose the vision of why it played. That vision and his plan exalted us to center stage.

When remembering the 2011 Jags that went all the way to achieve perfection, there was more to it than just raw talent and ability. Maybe what we should be remembered for, more than the first SCL or NCS championship and an undefeated record, is the road that we went down.

“Our greatest strength was from how close we got (to one another) from all the torrents thrown our way,” said Austin Boettger, who had the strongest lifts on the Jags roster in the fall season. “We grew closer purely from adversity, which matured and bettered us.”

We will be remembered as the team that made history, the team that achieved perfection, except if you were one of us strapped into that rollercoaster. The countless numbers of “firsts” seem insignificant compared to the continual battles with adversity, and the everlasting feeling of standing upon the threshold of victory beaten, battered but victorious. We’ll remember it differently because this is our story, and because in the end we overcame. In the end we defeated more than football teams and silenced more than obnoxious fans. The road to victory was not easy, but it makes that historic season that much greater, embedding itself into the memories of me and my teammates. Exemplifying the greatest lesson of all, anything is possible with extreme desire and holding tightly to the vision, even if it sometimes seems impossible to achieve.