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GAME DAY AT CARMEL HIGH SCHOOLby: Jon Kerr
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On a grey fall Friday afternoon, Carmel Catholic head coach Andy Bitto greets a visitor as he enters his office.
Kickoff is four and a half hours away, but minus his headset, Bitto is already sporting his game day outfit—brown and gold pullover, brown tie on white shirt, khaki pants and tennis shoes. The outfit could be labeled old school, something out of George Halas’ time. After all, where is the Under Armour?
Bitto hands the visitor an itinerary for that week’s practices, including the next four hours plus before Carmel takes the field to face conference foe St. Joseph’s Academy. At the top of the sheet is printed “The Conference Drive”. It is a theme Bitto and his staff have been using all week. Three regular season games remain and winning the East Suburban Conference title is in the Corsairs crosshairs. But before that can happen, there is much to be done. Bitto ushers his visitor out of the office. It is 3:10. He has just enough time to make it to the special teams meeting which begins in five minutes.
3:15 SPECIAL TEAMS
The chatter of teenage voice comes to an abrupt halt when Bitto enters Chapel Hall, where the special teams meeting is being held. In his 12th season as Carmel coach, with a winning percentage of almost .740, you might think he wouldn’t have time for such trivial matters as punt return schemes. But you don’t know coach Bitto. He is very hands on with this unit, understanding how any game can turn on a special teams miscue or big return.
“Our whole concept in the kicking game is to re-establish field position or advance our field position,” says Bitto, addressing his team. Players begin to file to the front of the room, and the walk-through commences. “We look for special teams to make a huge dent in the game tonight.”
Speaking to a visitor earlier in the day, Bitto explains his approach leading up to game day. Bitto’s emphasis on special teams is reflective on when it is scheduled— right after warm-ups each practice day: 20 minutes Tuesday and Wednesday, 30 minutes on Thursday. This after a Monday meeting where strategy is first debated for that week’s game. On game day, it’s the first meeting right after the players are dismissed from classes. “When we go into the (special teams) meeting (Friday), we are re-emphasizing the things we talk about during the week,” said Bitto, leaning over his desk. “There are overriding things with (special teams) that we want to accomplish each week but there are specific things we want to exploit.”
Breaking down film the previous Sunday, Bitto watched his punt return team block a kick against Marian Catholic two weeks before. Bitto observed something very similar in St. Joseph’s scheme. The Chargers were giving away the edge on punt protection which provides leverage for the opponent. If Carmel can get pressure on both sides, it forces the personal protector to decide which side to block. This should free up one side to get a clean shot at the ball. This strategy has been a point of emphasis all week in practice. On game day, now in front of the entire team, he is reaffirming the importance of this tactic. “There punter is a 30 (yard) guy, so we can establish field position,” he says. “There is a flaw in the scheme and we will block a punt.” Don’t rule out a fake, either. “If they rush 10 or 11 we are going to run a fake,” says Bitto. “I don’t care if it’s 21-0. They don’t cover anybody. Some people think I’m not nice for doing it but I don’t care.” Looking at the steely concentration of his players, you believe they hope they are in a position later that night to call it.
The atmosphere is mostly loose, with Bitto using nicknames for the players such as “killer” and “axe man”. This is pre-mediated. After being much more rigid during the week, he understands the importance of a more affirmative tone on game day. “I always try to review what we are going to do in a less than intimidating atmosphere,” said Bitto afterwards. “I’m much tougher on them in practice.” Before they leave the room, there are no questions about responsibilities. Blocking assignments are crystal clear. “I don’t want them to get too loose. I also don’t want them to play now; they don’t have to play until 7:30. It will get more intense as we get through (the day),” said Bitto.
As most of the players file out of the room, Bitto ask a few of them to come over. They are this week’s captains—five total, all seniors. Bitto rotates his captains each week. He believes leadership is best implemented democratically, which leads to more team unity. One voice can be tuned out; multiple voices keeps everyone engaged. This brief talk revolves around pre-game meal conduct. “Be sure you remember to pray before the meal and thank your parents for your success,” said Bitto. “And no swearing.”
4:50 DEFENSIVE MEETING
After the pre-game meal and chapel, it is time for the Corsairs to refocus their attention on the task at hand, which is the St. Joe’s offense. Defensive Coordinator Randy Hoffman runs this meeting, along with assistants Joe May and Dan Potempa.
The opponent’s QB is 6’3”, a 3-year starter and terrific athlete who runs the Chargers offense mostly out of a spread formation. He is the only threat the winless Chargers possess, which Hoffman admits. He stands in front of a podium in a crowded classroom and addresses his squad. “I’m nervous about the QB scrambling. He’s very shifty, has long strides. We must emphasize when we are attacking him. Outside shoulder, force him up the pocket as opposed to outside.” Carmel runs a base 3-3-5 defense, with some cover 2 and man. On film, Hoffman and his staff have noticed St. Joseph’s hasn’t shown any lead option and throws the ball 95% of the time from a trips formation. When the backfield is empty, they will go man coverage. “We’re going to be in Green (man) in empty,” said Hoffman. “We want corners on 1, safety on 2 and free is always on 3.”
The coaches take questions, but the players are quiet, almost reticent. We are two and a half hours from kickoff; the game plan is complete. There should be no surprises. “Sometimes it’s hard to get up for a lesser opponent,” said assistant coach Joe May, when asked about the hushed mood. “But defensively we need to make a statement as to who we are and what we can do. I think they are on board with it.”
5:00 OFFENSIVE MEETING
A visitor strolls late into another cramped classroom. He first notices what’s written on the chalkboard:
Keys to Championship:
Carmel runs the option as their base offense. Before each season, beginning in July, they run 2,000 repetitions out of various formations. Each day in practice during the season, they run option 50 times. On some weeks, they may rep 300 plays. It is all part of Bitto’s philosophy leading up to each game day—lay the foundation early, practice hard and consistently to insure there are no cracks. But be flexible enough to leave the walls white in case you want to change the paint later. “We run our sets a lot, but when we play each team, it becomes more specific,” said Bitto, who doubles up as offensive coordinator. Another tactic—scripting the first 16 plays. Considering the Corsairs are in option offense, it should be no surprise that out of the first 16, 12 are running plays. From watching film of last year’s game against St. Joseph’s, Bitto had his staff noticed two tendencies: in a trips formation, the Chargers defense played either up and deep or 6 yards off. This attention to detail has given them direction as to what to audible tonight. “Their Falcon (formation) they play up and deep,” said assistant coach Tom Schrank in front of the offensive players. “If they are 6 yards or deeper we’ll go and run 50 (pass). If up, we are running 32 (run).” The Corsairs have practiced this during the week, and the point is one of affirmation. This is the tone for much of the 20 minute meeting—coaches firmly remind players what is expected of them that evening, and the business-like mood is reflective of that directive. Coaches go to the white board with individual players to demonstrate plays if there are minor gaps in comprehension. In the hallway after the meeting, Bitto is confident with the offensive game plan and his approach. “Monday is more obtuse, there is a lot of information,” said Bitto. “There is a lot less Thursday. (Today) is a lot cleaner.” Comfortable with that side of the ball, his thoughts drift to special teams. “I’m really expecting to block a punt. They are not sound, they don’t cover certain gaps. If we get off blocks we will block a punt,” said Bitto.
A group of men with rolling suitcases are wandering the hallways outside Carmel’s gymnasium. They are ushered into a Bitto’s office. They introduce themselves as the evening’s officiating crew. The lead referee is Greg Lindgren. He is asked if there has been any special behavioral emphasis this season. “Control of sidelines,” said Lindgren without any hesitation. “The (state governing body) has mandated they want to maintain order and sideline control.” Lindgren says the rule is teams must be 2 yards back from the sidelines while ball is alive. A first infraction is a verbal warning, 2nd time a 5-yard penalty, 3rd time a 15-yard penalty. This is the 7th week of the season, so teams should be used to the rule. “We will remind them,” said Lundgren
As the sophomore game winds down, the atmosphere around the school becomes more festive. It is homecoming after all. The school colors of brown and gold are more interwoven into the fabric of the school than for a normal game—uniforms, banners, instruments are all imprinted in Corsair pigmentation. With one notable exception. The socks. Pulled up over their calf muscles, hanging just below the knees are a color only the mother of a football player would love—pink. No, it is not a gimmick to throw off the psyche of their opponent. No, the real socks did not get lost in the wash. It is October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. And this year, the message has hit close to home for the Corsairs—assistant coach Ben Berg’s wife is in the midst of fighting breast cancer. You are reminded, even if for just an instant, that a football game can have much more meaning than just the outcome on a scoreboard.
6:50 BITTO SPEAKS
The basketball gymnasium is cleared out. All that is left are the players and coaches. Bitto addresses them:
What I want to instill in you along with the whole concept of a championship drive…is that you are playing for somebody else. You are playing for your family, you are playing for the guy next to you. You are playing for somebody else. You take that through your life…I’m going to do something for somebody else. Championships are won in every aspect of your life. You do things for other people…you do it with enthusiasm…you do it with hard work then you walk away and say I am a champion!!!!
Carmel gets the opening kickoff, fumbles away the possession on the opening play, but gets the ball right back. They march down the field and score their first touchdown on Ace Right 19, one of their bread and butter running plays. But Bitto sees something in the secondary he can use on their next possession. Just as they had noticed on film, a Chargers defender is playing deep—10 yards—off the line. This is a one-on-one match up he can exploit. The Corsair defense forces a turnover, and on the 1st offensive play, Bitto calls Ace Right 97. It works perfectly, as QB Larry Amato hits Matt Felicelli for a 42 yard touchdown. By halftime the score is 35-0. The game is essentially over at that point. The 2nd team will get plenty of reps on this night.
Carmel would go on to win the game 55-0. They finished the season 7-3, winning a share of the conference championship.
As for that punt block Bitto said he wanted against St. Joseph’s? They came very close. In the 2nd half, they pressured the Chargers punter into a one yard kick. The offense went on to score on the ensuing drive.
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