Good guys disprove the myth
Stafford’s Roger Pierce has revived a program that this year won its first playoff game in five decades of football. Pierce has the Indians on the verge of the most surprising state championship in years — or at least since Sorrentino’s Culpeper team upset Hampton on the way to winning the Division 5 championship in 1999.
Neither Sorrentino nor Pierce led their teams to state finals by magic. Their journeys have been about hard work, seizing opportunities and doing the right things.
“I truly believe that if you go out and work hard, if you do things right, sooner or later good things come back to you,” Pierce said.
That’s how Pierce convinced himself to take the Stafford job before the 1998 season. At that point, the status of the weight room reflected the shape of the program.
Pierce recalls dingy tile flooring and a few scattered free weights in what he said looked like a dungeon. The room needed cleaning up, and so did the attitude at Stafford, where losing had become standard.
Pierce brought his “We believe” motto and instilled it in the players.
“They’d grown accustomed to losing,” said Ben Stutler, the current Potomac head coach who coached with Pierce at Stafford in 1998, as well as at Group A Essex (1990-93), Group AA King George (1994-95) and Group AAA Heritage (1996-97). “To change that attitude in five years, that’s just amazing to me.”
Indians quarterback Tim Sullivan and lineman Chris Collins each say they knew Pierce meant business the first time they saw him. Sullivan was in Gayle Middle School when he first met Pierce.
At Thursday’s Stafford practice, the final full-equipment affair of the season, Pierce still meant business. The players finished practice with about a dozen 100-yard wind sprints, among other things. Coaches customarily let up on conditioning late in the year.
More than just the program’s overseer, Pierce was in the mud coaching players on positioning, yelling at them to get serious and holding them accountable on Thursday. One lineman getting pushed off the ball claimed that the mud was making him slip; Pierce reminded the player that the other guy has to play in the mud too.
Stutler said Pierce challenges his assistants too.
“He pushed us as coaches as hard as he coached them,” Stutler said.
Thomas McClelland, who has rushed for an area-record 2,381 yards this season, didn’t immediately recognized the dividends that Pierce’s discipline paid.
“I didn’t really see it until the end of the season,” McClelland said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, we won these ball games because we were more disciplined than these other teams.’ “
Sullivan says Pierce has a friendly demeanor in the weight room, which by the way is brighter than in ’98 and has a rubberized floor and new weights.
“But just like when we step out on the field, we become different people, he’s a different person out here,” Sullivan said.
Sorrentino’s arrival at Hylton wasn’t about him becoming a different person. It was just that he was a different person.
He wasn’t Bill Brown, the Virginia High School League Hall of Fame coach who built Hylton football from scratch to two-time state champions in eight varsity seasons. Sorrentino had a good thing going at Culpeper, and he certainly didn’t have to leave. But taking over a program that had gone 51-3 in the four years prior to his arrival? Well, that was a challenge.
“I wouldn’t have been ready to do this five years ago,” said Sorrentino, who says he learned as he went. From his head coaching beginnings at Group A George Mason of the Bull Run District in 1990-91 and then at Culpeper from 1992-2001, challenges were the name of the game. Those programs needed his leadership. The Mustangs had gone 0-10 four years before Sorrentino arrived and took them to the playoffs. Culpeper’s playoff win in 1997 under Sorrentino was the program’s first since 1941. Hylton, a football program among the best in Virginia, needed no such help. Sorrentino arrived with an acute sense of where the Bulldogs had been and what it would take to keep that up.
“I’m really most proud of blending two coaching staffs,” said Sorrentino, whose former Culpeper assistants Dave Boley and Todd Campbell joined John Brown, Greg Prifti and Mike Thornton on the staff. Hylton runs an offense similar to what the Bulldogs have done for years. The defensive scheme is pretty much what Sorrentino did at Culpeper.
Surrounding yourself with good people is a key to success, Pierce said. He should know. His father, brother, mother and wife all work at Stafford High School with him. Sorrentino’s family comes to games at Hylton.
Just as important is being a good person.
In Sorrentino, you can see it in how he deals with people. Against Thomas Dale on Saturday, he told someone on his sideline not to yell at the officials, then calmly proceeded to get the same message across.
“That’s my job,” he said.
As he coaches, Sorrentino seems very controlled. He’s told his team not to panic at halftime, and they’ve come out and won games in the second half. He decided not to be conservative against Thomas Dale, and the Bulldogs won going away.
After games he’s spent. He’ll speak to the team, then have a seat, wipe his brow and ask what the final score was.
“Lou’s a good guy,” said Pierce of his former Commonwealth District coaching counterpart. “He’s a great guy, personable and easy to get along with. He’s got a lot of class. When he’s whooping your butt … He’s kicking field goals when they could be scoring touchdowns.”
Some might find it interesting that most of Sorrentino’s players at Hylton are black, and Sorrentino is not. But matters of color are of limited significance when you treat people well.
“He’s been successful because he cares, and that’s important,” Sorrentino’s father Lou Sr. told the Potomac News before the season began. “He’s good with kids, and when you get them on your side, they can do miracles.”
That’s pretty much been the formula at Stafford. Defeating Phoebus, who many feel is the state’s best team in any division, might qualify as a miracle to some.
“Nobody’s expected them to be where they are,” Stutler said. “I’m sure he has those guys believing that anything can happen. So, no, it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Win or lose, the rewards will show themselves on Saturday for Pierce and Sorrentino, who interestingly, began his coaching career as an assistant at Stafford in 1982.
They’ll each see the looks on their players’ faces and know they’ve accomplished something. Especially if they win.
“Oh sure, that’s what it’s all about,” Pierce said. “It’s about kids setting goals for themselves, and realizing those goals. There’s an energy after the game, you can’t describe it. It sends cold chills up your spine. If you haven’t been there and been a part of it, you’ve missed a great opportunity in life.”
Keith McMillan is a staff writer for the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him at 703-878-8053 or by e-mail at [email protected]