Let’s go back to a dark and stormy time where Friday nights and football stadiums were filled with high school soccer or lacrosse, and there was no football. It’s hard, because we’re so deep into this season, but yes, there was really a time where we didn’t have football every single Friday night. Envision a high school team. In January, offseason workouts began and team X had a lot of hope in the air. There were players back from injuries, players that were lifting more than ever before, and the hope and enthusiasm is high. Then comes 7-on-7 work. Team X does really, really well, and they’re looking to have a great season. Spring football comes, practice goes well, and you get close to winning or win the game. There’s lots of improvement to note.
Aug. 1 comes and then it’s time for fall practice, and all the camps, 7-on-7 work, and summer practice will have to show. Team X does what they need to do to show people that they’re a team on the rise. There’s a ton of enthusiasm in the air. Then it’s time. The Fall Classic comes. Team X competes to the final whistle and proves they’re a team to watch out for. Then the first game, closing out August. September comes, and there’s more losses, key players go down with injury. Players on Team X get discouraged. It’s easy to when everything doesn’t seem to be going right. Playoffs are out of sight.
How does Team X stay motivated even when the playoffs are out of sight? It’s not exactly an easy feat.
Leto Head Coach Matt Kitchie is used to keeping his team motivated when things get rough. The Falcons used to be a playoff team, yes, we’re talking about the same Leto Falcons. In 1999, they were the District Runner-Up under HC Andy Martin. Since then, the Falcons have not had anything more than four wins (five if you count a Gaither forfeit in 2001).
Everyone focuses on the 47-game losing streak that Leto snapped in 2014 against Middleton, but aside from that, nobody really talks about them. What really goes down at Leto?
“Our reality is that Plant was our first district game for the past two years,” said Kitchie. “We’re playing our first district game against a team that is one of the best programs in the state, and our playoff contention is pretty strained after that. I always tell the kids that the reason why you go is to improve. It’s all about improving.”
Their record at 1-7 (one win came due to a Sickles forfeit) doesn’t exactly show an improvement, but it’s the inner workings of the program that has shown the fruits of their labor. “Kids are doing things better than how they did it at the beginning of the year, and that’s really what we look for. We lost our top player to a knee injury last week, but other guys are really starting to step up.”
The Falcons have their final district game against Gaither on Friday and then their final game will be one that was rescheduled against Riverview next Friday. Then it’s time for January offseason workouts. Those final two games will be competitive, and the Falcons will fight until their final snap of the 2016 season. “I think the biggest thing that has been nice over the past couple of years has been the coaches, the officials, and the parents that have walked up to me telling me that they loved the way that we fought until the very end,” Kitchie said.
A big difference from Kitchie’s playing and coaching days has been the success of the program. “I was at Bradenton Southeast in our heyday, when we were practically winning state championships every year. But the biggest thing there was about improving. I’ve taken the idea, but every day at practice, the kids clap three times, and yell, ‘improve.’ It’s been humbling to have former students and players send me texts and Facebook messages saying, ‘it’s a great day to improve.'”
So from here, where do the Falcons go? Where do all of the teams in the Bay Area that didn’t make the playoffs go from here? Kitchie is focusing on the academic part of things with his students. “During the football season, every day, we have a study hall before we start to practice. They have to be solid in grades. Yes, we’re going to get to those offseason workouts come January, but these guys are students before they’re athletes. We’re going to make sure that the students keep their grades right and even improve some of them,” Kitchie said. “The most important stat is your GPA.”
“We are very lucky we have the group of guys we do. We still have the same amount of enthusiasm as we did at the beginning of the season,” Kitchie said.