By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
First-year Santa Rosa High School football coach Denis Brunk knew he took on a program in need of serious rebuilding.
Finishing 1-9 last year (1-6 in league), the Panthers have nowhere to go but up. In fact, the school has gone 9-39 in the North Bay League since its last winning season eight years ago.
But even worse than that unenviable win-loss record was that the program itself was adrift, lacking vision, cohesion and, as Brunk describes it, integrity and responsibility.
Some players didn’t even know basic football terms, one of his assistant coaches said.
“We’re focusing on character, accountability and grades,” Brunk said during a break in practice last week. “Everything will be different this year. We’re turning everything upside down. It needed it.”
A coach for two decades, Brunk grew up in the North Bay and went to Sacramento State. He moved to Colorado for non-football work but returned a couple of years ago, coaching at Lower Lake before accepting the Santa Rosa job this season.
With only three returning starters among his two dozen or so varsity players, the new coach had a clean slate from which to start building a new team culture. The first thing he did was explain his philosophy and expectations, which drove a few players away.
“But that’s a blessing,” he said. “With what we laid out, if they weren’t going to buy into it, the team would end up rooting them out anyway. Team comes first.”
In practices and weight training as this new era begins, there is no defeatist talk of previous losing seasons.
“I’ve seen that page turn,” Brunk said. “We’ve closed that chapter. We don’t talk about last year’s record or five years ago, or two years ago. We talk about today. And that resonates with the kids.”
Four of the players to watch this year are juniors, including the quarterback, a running back and a receiver-defensive back and an offensive lineman.
Isaiah Steele will lead the team at quarterback, Brunk said, along with running back-linebacker Trevor Smith, receiver-DB Kalei Aukai and lineman Alvaro Reyes. Senior Nico D’Amato will provide another receiving threat.
Coming in as a new coach, Brunk also was tasked with hiring new assistants. His first hire — ex-Windsor head coach Vic Amick — may raise some eyebrows, but as Brunk describes it, it was a perfect fit.
Amick was let go last year after three seasons for what he was told was a team “character” problem. The young coach was also active on social media, sometimes posting questionable sentiments for a youth role model.
He also came highly recommended, Brunk said, even from some Windsor contacts. When he interviewed Amick, the younger coach was completely open with him.
“There were tears in both our eyes after that,” Brunk said. It was wonderful. All that stuff was addressed. He wasn’t trying to hide or sugar coat anything. Some of the things got blown up. We worked through it.
“That was the guy I want to work with me and mentor these young men. It’s paying off.”
Another non X’s and O’s priority has been to start a tradition called “pods” or “tribes,” something he continues after learning from his coaching mentor, multiple Colorado state championship winner Rocky Whitworth.
At the end of every practice for 10 minutes, the team breaks up into a handful of small groups and “that’s our time to talk about the challenges in life.” Coaches pick the subject, which could be school or home life or something else.
“In the summer, the whole team was in tears,” he said. “We found out one kid wasn’t eating. There was only enough for food for three weeks, and there was no food left in the fourth week. That’s the time you take the filter off. This young man opened up. He’s not hungry anymore. Those are the life lessons we’re teaching these young men.
“We talk about accountability, and people overuse that term, but if we teach the kids the tools, the victories will come.”
You can reach Lori A. Carter at 521-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @loriacarter.
SANTA ROSA PANTHERS AT A GLANCE
Coach: Denis Brunk (first year)
2014 record: 1-9 1-6 NBL
2014 JV record: 1-5, 0-2 NBL
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Isaiah Steele, Jr., QB: This 6-3, 185-pounder will lead the Panthers’ pass attack, but will also be on the receiving end, sometimes playing wide receiver.
Trevor Smith, Jr., RB/MLB: A 5-11 transfer from Rio Lindo Academy, Smith will be a key running back and linebacker.
Kalei Aukai, Jr., WR/CB: Returns after a sophomore year that saw the 6-2, 185-pounder score two touchdowns on nine carries, including an 80-yard run.
GAME NOT TO MISS
The Panthers’ first league game on Sept. 25 against Cardinal Newman could show what Santa Rosa can do in league play.
In 2012-13, Santa Rosa defeated Montgomery, 28-7, at home — the Panthers’ first victory against the Vikings in 22 years.
Sept. 5, at Piner, 1:30
Sept. 11, Fremont, 7:30
Sept. 18, at Petaluma, 7:30
Sept. 25, Cardinal Newman, 7:30
Oct. 2, at Ukiah, 7:30
Oct. 9, Maria Carrillo, 7:30
Oct. 16, at Windsor, 7:30
Oct. 23, at Montgomery, 7:30
Oct. 30, Casa Grande, 7:30
Nov. 6, Rancho Cotate, 7:30