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High Roller! – Since Tony Sanchez was named head coach, Bishop Gorman has won four consecutive Nevada State Championships and posted an overall 56-4 record.by: Frank Therber
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“Live well.” The words are simple; however, what they entail for those associated with the Bishop Gorman High School football program is anything but. Serving as the mantra which internally defines Bishop Gorman football, “live well” is part of an overall philosophy which has contributed to the school capturing the last four 4A Nevada State Championships.
There are six identifiable components one can link to the culture of success that is Gaels’ football. These six characteristics are citizenship, tradition, communal cohesiveness, a first-class off-season strength and conditioning program, a strong coaching/support staff and a schedule that includes televised interstate games with the top prep teams in the country.
Holding the door open for a peer, tucking in one’s shirt and acting as a respectable citizen in the public eye are just a few examples of what “living well” means to Gaels Head Coach Tony Sanchez. While games are won and lost on Friday nights in late summer through the fall, the game of life, according to Sanchez, is won after the lights go off and diplomas – both in high school and college – are received and societal contributions are made down the road.
An accomplished high school and former collegiate coach, Sanchez came to Bishop Gorman hoping to restore the type of routine, on-field contention and consistency to which the Gaels’ program was accustomed in prior decades. Winning six state championships in a thirteen-year span beginning in 1970, the program would not bring home another title for almost 25 years.
“It was interesting the way it happened,” Sanchez said. “It wasn’t something I was really looking for. I think what they were looking for was someone to come in and establish some accountability. We were able to do some great things while I was at California High in San Ramon before coming to Bishop Gorman.”
Accountability was something current Bishop Gorman President John Kilduff, who held the same position when Sanchez was hired in 2009, saw in the coach from the beginning. “Tony is a no-nonsense guy,” Kilduff said. “He demands a lot from his players and his assistant coaches; that was evident to us as we were going through the search process. It was his competency as a football coach, his appreciation for respect and development of character and an emphasis on sportsmanship. He demands 100% from everyone.”
“It has been my experience that Xs and Os are the least discussed topic during a job interview,” said Sanchez. “I want to be as prepared as possible and be ready to discuss anything from my philosophy on education and football to character development. With regard to Bishop Gorman, community building, player and parent relationships and communication and the development of character were all important issues.”
Despite going more than two decades without winning a state championship prior to Sanchez’s arrival, Bishop Gorman remained relevant in the world of high school football from a personnel standpoint. The program saw players such as Demarco Murray (Oklahoma, Dallas Cowboys), Grey Ruegamer (Arizona State, two-time Super Bowl Champions with the Patriots and the Giants) and Blake Ezor (Michigan State, Denver Broncos) keep the tradition of high-level football alive and the school’s name fresh in the minds of those around the game.
“I think it’s huge,” Sanchez said. “I think it’s a powerful thing when you have tradition, and if you don’t have it, it’s important to build it. We should celebrate players who have come through. When the community sees kids that are playing for their alumni communities, it’s a powerful thing. It’s pretty humbling when you say, ‘hey, there are people that have done it before.’ We never want to forget about where we came from and how humble our roots are. We want to talk about our Catholic principles and history.”
Founded in 1954 and still the only Catholic High School in southern Nevada, the Gaels immediately revived that model of consistency under the watchful eye of Sanchez.
“That first year (at Bishop Gorman) wasn’t easy,” Sanchez said. “I don’t think there was any accountability. When we got here, we didn’t really worry about what was here and what wasn’t. We had an idea of what we wanted to do. Obviously, the first thing was to have discipline. It took awhile, but the kids realized that discipline makes a difference.”
The turnaround was quick, as Bishop Gorman captured its first of the four consecutive titles in Sanchez’s initial season. Sanchez believes that in addition to setting teenagers up for long-term success, “living well” and communal cohesion contribute to winning on the field. He traces his philosophy’s roots back to Onate High School in Las Cruces where he spent three seasons as a defensive position coach and coordinator.
It was at Onate where the former New Mexico State graduate assistant first felt passion for coaching and, in 2002, he learned that any program with a strong, communal relationship possesses a potent asset. Set in a low socioeconomic area in Las Cruces, the Onate football team came together to win that year’s state championship behind the strong backing of its classmates, parents, fans and fellow residents. Its 2002 title was the first, and only, in school history. “That was a program that held coaches accountable and ignited the community,” he said. “It was a powerful thing.” Sanchez is quick to point out that the tradition and similar sense of family around Bishop Gorman is not something to hide, but rather to build culture upon.”
Just inside the entrance to the school hangs a picture of the Gaels’ now elegant campus, including its football stadium – the first school history - built in 2008. The picture, Sanchez notes, is a symbol of the community’s support around both the football program and the school itself. In this case, large endowments on the part of the Southern Nevada community made the new school setting possible. This includes a state of the art weight room facility.
Saying there is a sense of organization in the Bishop Gorman football program would be an understatement. While “living well” is stressed year round, off-season player development from a pure football standpoint also receives the same, high-level priority. Sanchez labels the Bishop Gorman program as a “competitive environment,” where the weight room takes utmost importance among the players throughout the calendar year.
“For building the program, it’s huge,” Director of Strength and Conditioning Sean Manuel said. “It’s proved year in and year out to be one of the deciding factors when we compete against teams. In the weight room in the off-season program, you are able to focus on building a certain level of toughness. We’ve made good players really good players and we’ve made average players good players. Every year we watch a certain evolution take place where guys come out and become major contributors.”
Manuel was quick to point out that many aspects of the off-season workouts at Bishop Gorman are tailored toward those of collegiate programs. “I think there are certain kids that aren’t your top-tier guys, that can make themselves scholarship-eligible through the hard work in the weight room,” Manuel said. “And, when they get to the next level, it’s an easier transition and they’re not lost.”
Five Gaels from the class of 2013 will play football at FBS schools, and four others will play at schools at the FCS level. Two Gaels since 2010 have played in a BCS game, including the 2013 BCS National Championship Game.
“We feel like the weight room is the most important part of high school football,” Manuel said. “In high school football, you’ve got a shot to win football games with that type of toughness. We’ve really embraced that competitiveness. We don’t put the weights away when the season starts.”
No aspect of Bishop Gorman’s off-season program requires footballs until spring drills roll around. Players begin their offseason regimen after Christmas vacation, engaging in workouts five days per week. While Bishop Gorman’s players focus purely on strength and conditioning from Christmas until after spring break, assistant coaches waste no time diving into the previous season’s film archives and player evaluations.
“We also have a competitive atmosphere in the weight room over the winter and spring months,” said Sanchez. “We do this with our shirt competition. All players begin with a white t-shirt After six weeks in, we have our first maxes of the year. We test for clean, squat, and bench press as well as the 40-yard dash, shuttle and vertical jump. In order to wear our colors in the weight room, players have to clean, squat and bench specific amounts of weight. To become an ‘Iron Man’, a player must clean 275 lb., squat 400 lb. and bench press 300 lb.”
Sanchez has had most of the same assistant coaches during his four years at Bishop Gorman. “The one thing I can say is I have a loyal staff,” he said. “I came in with a packet A to Z on what I expected from assistant coaches and, also, a supportive administration. We can discuss and debate certain things, but at the end of the day we can all walk out and be on the same page. If we ask all these things of our kids, we had better be willing to work seven days and be here on Sunday nights in order to be successful.”
Each member of the Bishop Gorman staff agrees that it’s important to arrange one of the toughest schedules in the country. This past season in its opening contest, Bishop Gorman defeated nationally renowned Our Lady of Good Counsel in a game televised by ESPN. The idea to play the best in preparation for the state playoffs came from Matt Sweeney, a friend and former coaching colleague of Sanchez.
“He said ‘if there’s any advice I can give you, schedule some tough games so you can learn how to win and then, go out and play the best,’” Sanchez said. “I took that advice to the bank. We now have a number of intersectional match-ups each year.” This coming fall, the Gaels are playing five games against out of state opponents: Desert Pointe (AZ), Servite (LA), Santa Margarita (CA), Bergen Catholic (NJ) and Washington (FL).
Bishop Gorman’s staff is constantly finding new ways to innovate its offensive and defensive approach. In addition to film study, Sanchez takes his team and his coaches to an annual camp at Fresno State and his coaches to study new offensive and defensive schemes.
Such study has led to many spread offense innovations in the Bishop Gorman’s pro-style system. In 2012, , Bishop Gorman beat its playoff opponents by an average of more than 47 points-per-game, which included a 53-point route of Liberty in the 2012 4A state championship. In ten different games last fall, Bishop Gorman scored 50 or more points and had season totals of 4,480 yards in rushing and 3,171 passing.
“We’re going to use multiple formations and shifts and try to create a numbers advantage at the point of attack,” Sanchez said. “We’ll give you a bunch of different looks and make you defend the entire football field. Our offense uses 21, 11, 12 and 22 personnel groupings. Zone and power are the two most frequently used plays. One of our favorite power plays is 34 Power Ready Y Up (Diagram 1).
Diagram 1. 34 Power Ready Y up
We use variations of 77 Double Arrow H Sit as a pass play (Diagram 2).”
Diagram 2. 77 Double Arrow H Sit
The Gaels’ old school philosophy coupled with spread offense is in part why the off-season program is so complex. Versatility with regard to the run, drop back and short passing game are a must when it comes to the program’s offensive linemen. “We want our offensive linemen to be great athletes and to create athletic power,” Sanchez said. “Our offensive linemen have to be able to get involved in the screen game. There have to be athletic movement patterns. As hard as these kids work, as hard as we push them, we don’t want anything handed to them. At the end of the day, the battles are what we all live for.”
Defensively, Bishop Gorman utilizes a multiple front with both the 4-3 and 3-4 packages. “When we are in our 3-4 package, we are very aggressive with our defensive calls,” said Sanchez. “ We will be zone blitzing on almost every snap.”
It is Sanchez’s all around leadership, according to Nieman, that makes Bishop Gorman the overwhelming winner in most of those battles. “Tony is such a perfect fit for our school because he really represents our brand so well,” she said. “He’s a great motivator, a great teacher, a great role model and incredibly consistent. He’s just as much a leader of parents and alumni as he is the athletes’ themselves.”
While a focus on grueling off-season work, competitive scheduling and internal and external evaluation has led Sanchez to four championships in four seasons, the game has just begun for Bishop Gorman football players, according to the head coach. “If you haven’t gone on to graduate college or become a productive member of society, you didn’t win, you haven’t lived well,” he said.
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