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The Project: Rebuilding a Shattered Program

October 15, 2015

by Justin Porreca

Whistles blow—the crunching of the pads cease. It’s a cool Wednesday evening, unseasonably comfortable for this time of the year. The players are gassed after another grueling practice in preparation for their next game, but there is still work to be done. Helmets slide back on and chinstraps buckle—he emerges from a crowd of assistants ready to instruct his players on their next task.

With beads of sweat glistening on his forehead, he praises his team on their effort in practice. He shouts—offense—and 11 players quickly flock to the ball, obeying their coach’s demand. I-Left 41 dive. The play develops and sputters. He’s crouching, unsatisfied. He calls out his offensive line—demanding the lineman to get better splits and open cleaner holes for the tailbacks. The offensive line has been inconsistent all season. Failing to open up holes for the running game and providing protection for the quarterbacks.

I-Left 41 dive. Again. I-Left 41 dive. Again. I-Left 41 dive. Eight repetitions later, after he sees some positive progression in his line—he’s satisfied. He decides his team has worked hard enough for one practice and he huddles them up for a motivational practice-ending speech. Per usual, he’s emphasizing team; everything is about team and uniting players and coaches together as one. His speech ends, hands rise, and the team chants and disperses. He’s left standing amongst his assistants, mentally analyzing another practice.

This team—the Albany High Falcons—and this coach—his name is Joey DiPiazza. His job: take Albany High from annual cellar dwellers to Suburban Council contenders.

We convened in a small office, littered with football gear and equipment, two desks and foldout chairs with the Falcon emblem stamped on the seat. The must of sweaty gear crept under the crack in the door, filling the air with a dank aroma.

Undeterred, he’s smiling ear-to-ear, as if the team isn’t 0-6. Almost Zen-master-like, tranquil and at ease with the stressful situations hovering around him, he blocks all the negative energy surrounding the program and only promotes positivity and togetherness.

He took a deep breath—paused—still smiling, “Hey, big guy, come in,” DiPiazza said.

Gracious, I nodded and proceeded to take a seat—we began.

3-42—3-58 since 2008—6-75 since 2006 and they’ve been to the playoffs twice since 1996. They haven’t won a Section II title since 1996. From October 20, 2007 to October 20, 2012, Albany High went on a 44-game losing streak in Class AA games. The program hasn’t seen a winning season since 2005. These disheartening numbers loom over the program like a dark storm cloud, casting a shadow of doubt on the future.

Sitting leisurely across from me, I awkwardly alluded to these numbers and the dilemma he is embarking on with this job.

He bolted forward, as if he was told a juicy secret.

“Nowhere to go but up. Right?” he said.

Skeptical, I shrugged and agreed. He’s like a televangelist—almost Robert Tilton like, persuading me to put faith in him that this program will rise from the dead and ascend to the promise land.

He paused—and reiterated, “Nowhere to go but—I will say these numbers are going to change. Why are they going to change? Because I think it’s been a long time.”

Even offensive line and special teams coach, Lance McCall, who spent six years at Bishop Maginn, a winning program, was aghast by the startling numbers.

“That’s scary—I mean it’s a challenge. What comes to mind is this is a big challenge at hand and us coaches got to be working harder than the kids are working in order to get to where we need to be,” he said. “I mean those are scary numbers, but hey I didn’t take this job because I thought it would be easy.”

It’s atypical that rebuilding is spoken of at the high school ranks. Usually it’s a lengthy endeavor that takes place at the collegiate or professional levels. However, that’s the Herculean task DiPiazza and this new coaching staff signed up for. But he doesn’t use the term “rebuilding.”

With a passionate demeanor painted upon his face, “I said this is not going to be a ‘rebuilding’ process, but a ‘we-building’ process,” DiPiazza said. “What I meant by the ‘we-building’ process was just uniting the entire school community to support our football players on and off the field to make sure that they have success in all areas of life.”

Every coach on the staff agrees with DiPiazza and his “we-building” philosophy with this program. But, they also view it as restructuring a tattered program from scratch. .

“I know coach always defines it as a ‘we-building’ process, but I mean you’re building from the ground up. It’s a new coaching staff, you’re building from the ground up,” McCall said. “I mean it’s a building process. You’re building, not rebuilding, this thing has been demolished for how many years, so I view it as we are building the program right now.”

DiPiazza is familiar with fixing broken programs. He was behind the rebuilding process that took place in the late-2000s with the Albany High baseball program and in 2009 he led the varsity baseball team to a share of its first Big 10 title in 20 years.

Eerily similar to the rebuilding process that took place in Friday Night Lights, with the East Dillon Panthers or that’s taking place at the University of Michigan, under new coach Jim Harbaugh, DiPiazza and the Albany High coaching staff have an up-hill battle and hefty workload ahead of them.

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Albany High Falcons Head Coach, Joey DiPiazza gathers his offense together to talk execution/Justin Porreca

They’re not only battling a stacked deck, but an impatient fan-base, irritated over years of underachieving.

“It’s getting everyone involved, it’s not just Joey DiPiazza one person, it’s going to be a collaboration of everyone working together to get this program—and develop young men to what we want them to be,” DiPiazza said.

He’s a short man—5’8”, 5’9”—with a stocky build and a clean-cut look. He’s new to this program, but not new to the school district.

DiPiazza has been with the Albany school district for 13 years as the transition coordinator for the special education department. Which serves students, middle or high school. He’s tasked with the job of identifying and connecting students and families to services within the community that prepares students with disabilities for careers.

As for coaching, he’s on his 15th year. From an assistant at Shaker High School, to head coach of the Albany High varsity baseball team, to head baseball coach at Hudson Valley Community College and now the head varsity football coach at Albany High.

However, the position he is in—could have been his position five years ago.

I tentatively broached the subject of him pulling his name out of the varsity football coaching hat in 2010, “You applied for this position five years ago, why did you pullout?”

He nodded—calculating his response like a chess player calculates their next move. He started—paused—took a breath—then continued, “I needed time to decide really where I was going with my life,” he said. At that time in his life, coaching a struggling football team was not his number one priority—being a new father was.

He’s the coach now, five years later, but he’s the fifth coach in eight years. More coaches than the Pittsburgh Steelers have had in the last 46 years.

Leading the program to a playoff appearance in 2004 and its last winning season in 2005, Christian Brothers Academy coach, Joe Burke, was with the program from 2003-2007, going 14-31.

Brian Spicer succeeded him in 2008, but only lasted one season, going 0-9. Pete Porcelli left a championship ball club in Lansinburgh High, where he brought that varsity football team to six straight Class A or B sectional championships, to come back to Albany High. His tenure ended quickly, going 0-9 and leaving the program. Jon McClement stepped in to try and revive the program, but was unsuccessful. From 2010 to 2014, he went 3-42, failing to provide any spark to the Titanic-like sinking of the Albany High football program. He retired after the 2014 season, and thus began the Joey DiPiazza tenure.

It’s been a revolving door at Albany High with the coaching staff since 2007, mirroring that of the Oakland Raiders or Miami Dolphins, who are also stuck in rebuilding oblivion. A coaching carousel quite like this can cause developmental dilemmas, chemistry catastrophes and years of program instability.

However, with this new regime, their faces display a different attitude—one of determination and a commitment to excellence. When they speak about the program, it conveys a sense of desire and conviction—to silence the doubters and dismay the naysayers.

“I’m here for life—until I win 10 championships,” said Larry Oliver, strength and conditioning coach.

DiPiazza and this coaching staff have the players on board, believing and buying into the new philosophy, especially the seniors who are adjusting to their new coach—their second coach in two years.

“I think coach DP [Joey DiPiazza] is more motivated to win, but not just win, he wants us to be better as young men and coach McClement did too, but coach D just acts on it more,” said senior Geo Williams

However with rebuilding or “we-building,” team chemistry is a priority.

Building a coach-to-coach, player-to-player and coach-to-player rapport is key to success. But with this program—this unit—it’s still a work in progress and has yet materialized fully. They’re hoping by next season, with a year under their belt, that their bond is inseparable.

Currently, a month into the season, they’re more like the Bundys in Married With Children, dysfunctional and arguing one moment and a well-oiled, cohesive unit the next. Regardless, they have a blueprint heading into the offseason and the chemistry is progressing, just like the team.

“For the past three weeks we have been developing, we’ve been doing really good coming as a team, coming as a whole and doing what we have to do,” said senior captain Queone Sylvester. “I know that we struggle sometimes, but we can also improve and do good—in the past three weeks, I’ve felt like we’ve become a better team.”

We come back to the subject of “we-building” and how DiPiazza is going to see this process through.

He sits in the metal chair, hands clasped, piercing at me with an intense demeanor. The repugnant odor has dissipated and I intently listened to him describe his plan—the blueprint. His tone of voice changed—a sense of spirited devotion to this project oozed through his vocal chords.

“You have a whole program that you’re concerned about—not just the varsity team—and probably the most important piece about building a program is making sure you’re involved with your youth leagues,” DiPiazza said. “The youth leagues is where it’s going to start and it’s starting for us and I can’t be happier with the support we’ve received from Albany Pop Warner.”

Year in and out, Albany has lacked the numbers, size and experience that prominent Class A and AA schools like Shenendehowa, Shaker and Saratoga Springs have. They don’t have enough players, period. The varsity squad has to dip into its junior varsity squad to pull players to field a scout team and most importantly, a team in general. They’re an incredibly young squad, begging for more bodies to put on the field.

“We need to increase our participation numbers as far as people participating in the sport of football—now they’re not where we want them to be this year and it’s going to take some time to get them where we want it to be,” DiPiazza said.

Defensive line coach, John Curley, an Albany High alum and former Falcon football player has witnessed the lack of participation first hand. Curley became a coach at Albany High six years ago starting out as the defensive coordinator for the modified team, then the junior varsity program before moving to the varsity level this season.

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Defensive Line Coach, John Curley, praises and coaches up Freshman Al-Shareem Grey/Justin Porreca

“We need more numbers, the reason why we haven’t been successful is we don’t have the numbers. We go to other schools and their varsity team has 60 guys on it, their junior varsity team has 40 guys on it, their whole program has 150-200 people. Our whole program has maybe 75 kids, we don’t have the numbers, we don’t have the size,” he said.

The varsity team only has 35 players: five seniors, 13 juniors, eight sophomores and nine freshmen. Compared to Albany High’s last four opponents: Schenectady, Ballston Spa, Guilderland and Saratoga Springs, they’re far and away the youngest team in the Suburban Council. The Falcons have 18 upperclassmen, juniors and seniors, where Saratoga Springs has 45, Guilderland and Schenectady have 34 and Ballston Spa has 31.

Ballston Spa is the only other team to have a freshman on their roster—one.

The greenness and lack of depth, which in turn effects the success of the program, can be attributed to numerous variables that Albany High has no control over and very few other Class AA schools encounter.

Albany High lost some talented prospects coming up the pipeline to the charter school Green Tech.

“Their starting quarterback was my running back, their starting defensive end I taught to play defensive end—their other cornerback was an eighth grader I had on JV last year, so all of these kids I taught to play football,” Curley said. “I feel like they stole the good stuff and then went over to the other school and it’s very discouraging to me because I brought these kids along, I feel, and then they leave, so it’s tough.”

Each of these assistants attributes the lack of numbers to an array of uncontrollable factors. Where Curley believes it’s partly competing with charter and private schools, DiPiazza doesn’t necessarily believe Green Tech is a cause for concern as to why their roster numbers are anemic.

“I would definitely say it’s not Green Tech, it’s not the private schools—I don’t think that has hurt us whatsoever,” he said.

However the development of technology, he believes, is causing the social media, video game crazed millennials to lose interest in athletics.

“Technology has improved over the years and some kids are just not interested in being active and not wanting to compete and be part of something,” DiPiazza said. “We’re going to do everything that we can and work hard to beat that for sure.”

Like the Voice in Field of Dreams, “If you build it, he will come,” in this instance with Albany High football, if DiPiazza builds a winning program and appeals to the athletes not playing football—they will come.

Green Tech football coach, Travis Wood, believes that Albany has the players—they just have to go to them.

“Albany High has the athletes, they just got to find them and nurture them,” he said

However, what needs to be understood is that Albany High’s lack of depth isn’t a one-year epidemic that’s been plaguing the program, but a decade-long predicament. Burke, Albany High’s last coach to have a winning season in 2005, understands that participation numbers are the central issue behind why this program is failing.

“The participation rate of the kids in the high school is a big piece. Green Tech is taxing—no pun intended—has 60 kids playing junior varsity or varsity and they are all Albany City School District kids,” he said. “You are always going to lose a few to private school—but to lose that many to Green Tech is tough to overcome.”

Wood debunked these rumors that Green Tech robs Albany High blind of its gifted athletes.

“In my five years with the varsity program, no football players from the football team have come from Albany High,” he said.

After eighth grade, students from the Albany school district have the choice of going to Albany High or electing to attend a charter or private school. Wood alluded to the fact that the majority of his football players come from the Schenectady area, from either the Pop Warner or modified programs.

Wood also noted that the only player the program has from the Albany school district is—defensive end Timothy Robertson—the same defensive end Curley taught to play the position at the modified level. Robertson’s purpose for opting to leave the Albany school system for Green Tech had nothing to do with playing football.

Wood never had any intention of taking players from the Albany school district and told McClement that several years ago.

“I said, ‘I don’t need your players, we’re just trying to get kids out of here [Albany]’,” he said.

In the end, as DiPiazza referenced, it comes down to the feeder programs, and most importantly—Albany Pop Warner. This is where Albany High can rebuild its roster for the future.

DiPiazza, since his tenure began last December, has been working tirelessly to rebuild the broken relationship between Albany High football and Albany Pop Warner.

“I think coach DiPiazza is doing a good job reaching out to people and building bridges, but a lot of those bridges have been demolished, they’ve been knocked down and there was no involvement from the community and Pop Warner, there’s no building program, there’s no feeder program,” Curley said.

Albany Pop Warner vice president, Eric Kersey, had a front-row seat to the crumbling relationship between Albany High football and Albany Pop Warner.

“They didn’t reach out to not just Pop Warner, but kids in the community that can’t afford Pop Warner, but are just as talented as the kids that are playing,” he said. “It’s a community thing, it starts within the community—if you don’t reach out to these kids, not just Pop Warner, but the community also, and if you don’t reach out to them you’re not going to know what you have.”

The involvement has steadily improved and both parties have done their part in rebuilding the fractured bond.

Albany Pop Warner players and coaches have attended several games this year to show their support. Decked out in their black and yellow jerseys, looking like a swarm of bumblebees in the stands, they’re very supportive and awe-struck of the varsity players. Seeing them as role models—and their future selves.

DiPiazza has also returned the favor. Attending their games and showing them respect and support for their work in developing the kids at an early age.

“Joey [DiPiazza] has reached out to our Pop Warner kids in a tremendous way—he’s holding functions for the kids and he’s reaching out more than any other head coach has done,” said Kersey.

DiPiazza believes that filtering kids from Albany Pop Warner to Albany High will be an intricate piece to their rebuilding process, rather than letting them leave to attend charter or private schools.

“Albany Pop Warner is Albany’s best kept secret, they’re very successful and I think what’s happened in the past is that we were losing those kids in that transition of middle school up to the high school level and that’s one of the things we started right away is just starting to bridge that gap and develop that relationship,” he said.

Patching the broken bond with feeder programs like Albany Pop Warner and increasing participatory numbers are keys that will start the ignition to get the “we-building” process moving. However, there’s another crucial piece—a key that involves individuals who are fed up with losing. The parents.

Armchair quarterbacks—that’s what most parents are. They all believe that they can do a better job coaching than the current coach. Constantly heckling and demanding more from this program, they’re agitated with the losing and lack of promise. However, DiPiazza and this staff are relying on the parents to believe—believe that they can turn this around. Believe that the losing will end—believe that they can be a contender soon.

“I think that all parents are key components to successful high school programs, so I would love the opportunity—we do have an open door policy, we email, we talk over the phone, we’re setting up office hours where the coaches are just sitting in here,” DiPiazza said. “Parents want to come in, they can come in. Communication with the parents is a key component in turning the program around.”

The pressure is on this coaching staff to produce victories, especially to a fan-base starving to root for a successful football team.

For now, it’s one game at a time, developing the team and improving its reputation in the process.

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Head Coach, Joey DiPiazza, pulls Fullback, Lamar Grady, to the side to motivate him and get his head back into the game/Justin Porreca

“For the past three weeks, every week, we have gotten better and better and people are starting to realize you got to push yourself to be more successful,” said senior Rondu Arzu.

When I spoke with coach McCall—an animated figure—he said that he’s inspired to transform Albany High’s putrid public standing.

“I want to be known as a respectable group—a football team that’s going to play us, know we’re going to come hard and teams respect us for that,” he said. They don’t view Albany on the schedule like, ‘Oh, W,’ no they’re like, ‘Oh shit this is going to be a tough one.’”

Albany High has a new turf, symbolic of a start of a new era? Quite possibly, but that’s not an outcome changer—but a morale builder. They even have new Nike jerseys and cleats. The environment these players are exposed to is one that promotes potential success and positivity—but these luxuries—they haven’t correlated to on-field success or victories this season.

“I think it signifies a change of an era in Albany, period. I think it signifies that there is a commitment to change and change can happen, but just people working together, people collaborating, people all with the same vision, so yeah it’s bringing a new era to Albany,” DiPiazza said.

The Falcons unveil their new football field on October 17 against Burke and Christian Brothers Academy.

With six weeks down, three weeks to go—the progression is evident. The “we-building” process is slowly chugging along like the little train that could. The question now is, can the progression translate to success next season and beyond? The future is bright, but the demand for success is visible.

Before we descended into the dark abyss of night, going our separate ways until we speak again, I bounced a question back-and-forth in my mind. My brain was playing Pong with a simple question. I proceeded to ask him, “Where do you see this program five years from now?”

He chuckled—paused—then delivered his answer, “I think—be at the top of Section II football very quickly. Knowing how hard these kids work, it’s a coach’s dream and as I said that’s where it starts and it’s just adding a few pieces here and there and I think we’ll be right back to competing, winning consistently in the next few years.” -30-

 

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