By Grace Bernal
With the opening of 2019 spring training at Damien High School, the Spartans’ new head football coach, Matt Bechtel, has transformed the culture of the gridiron at the school, which was first established 60 years ago and now honors St. Damien de Veuster, SS.CC.
As a Damien Alumnus himself who partook in the Spartans’ rich football program, Coach Bechtel is ever true to the Damien motto “Cor Unum et Anima Una” and he has rededicated himself in one heart and one spirit to the betterment of the players he is leading.
His approach to football excellence demands mental discipline in equal measure with physical intensity. The San Bernardino County Sentinel has been observing this season’s gridiron practice sessions.
Academic execution aside from the gridiron is not merely a desired attribute but rather a requisite. No matter how impressive a player’s performance on the field in the past or on the practice field since, if that student does not have a C average and no failing grades in any and all classes, he is benched.
The Sentinel asked Bechtel what this policy might mean if the Spartans cannot make full use of the complement of players available to them when the season begins in September.
“We’re willing to play with the guys we currently have who are on task,” he said. “Benching is not for show and we’re willing to suffer whatever consequences come with recognizing the premium put on academics at Damien.”
The players know what the rules are, he said, and if they truly want to play, they will meet what is expected of them.
“Every coach has his own philosophy,” Bechtel said. “I truly feel that leadership starts from the top, what the coach is saying is expected, and thus everything falls to place. My approach is teaching the guys every time they’re together they must increase the level of urgency. Its like punching the clock and holding accountability with regard to being in the right, communicating if they can’t make practice, being to class on time, and attention to detail when learning the scheme. It’s not good enough to just get it done. It is about incorporating discipline. That’s what I’m trying to create in the program.”
Moreover, Bechtel said, playing as a team in Football demands academic intensity. The playbook must be studied. Each formation and its variants, in all of their precise forms and either substantial or subtle differences must be known instantaneously by all players on the field and on the sidelines. Linemen must know their blocking assignments in every particular on every specific play and cannot confuse one with another. Running backs and receivers must be counted upon to move to the exact location where their teammates are creating the daylight those touching the ball will need to make maximum forward progression. A quarterback needs to know what everyone is doing and what his own options are. For Bechtel it is this simple: If a player is incapable of staying abreast of the material in a chemistry class or unwilling to devote the time needed to read a novel in an English literature class, he most likely will be incapable of giving the intensity of focus needed to master the playbook.
With regard to the playbook, Bechtel said it is always going to be difficult for the players to assimilate all of it.
“The offense and defense are not necessarily complex, but intricate in detail,” he said. “We’re not trying to have the guys master everything.” Rather, they need to get to know and then perfect a repertoire that works, one that can be applied at will in the range of game situations the team is likely to encounter. “It’s like the quote by Bruce Lee – ‘I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.’ – The hard part is the attention to detail and the fact there’s multiple things that they have to know with the scheme they’re running. An example is the inside receiver will in many circumstances be called upon to make a quick decision: Should he go skinny? Stay vertical? Those are things they’ll understand based on experience. The other part is we are running as close to a college offense and defense as any high school program would be able to. This means preparing these guys, and the goal is to have success with the high school season and prepare these players to have a chance at the next level because of the system they are running. If you look at our playbook, it is similar to what colleges are doing.”
Bechtel acknowledged the obvious, that there is an intensely vigorous physical aspect to the Damian football program, consisting of endless repetition of the plays until each is executed like clockwork, intersticed with strength and speed training. “Realistically, more than the plays, there is also the weight room and speed,” he said. “We have a full program of that.”
Spring training is intense and overwhelming, Bechtel said, and is intended to be that way.
“The first thing is pushing the guys, giving them more then they know they can handle,” he said. “Once spring football is over, the staff will trim the facts and go through an elimination review. When the summer program comes, we will re-adjust. Every kid on the team is learning an offensive and defensive position. Eventually some guys will go back to one side of the ball. These young men will be helped at some point and we will refocus on what their individual strengths are.”
Bechtel said that based on what he sees so far, “If we had to play today, there would be a lot of guys that would have to go both ways, offense and defense. But the goal through the summer is to try to reduce that number.”
Ultimately, Bechtel said he recognizes that the full playbook he has is one thing and that the percentage of that playbook – hopefully a large percentage rather than a small percentage – that the entire team will master as its repertoire is another thing. “We will have our guys prepared for the 23rd of August,” he said. “They don’t ever take everything into a game. Everything is based on what they feel they need to do to be able to attack the other teams defense. The playbook will be an ongoing thing, but the players need to have the basics mastered by then. That is the goal.”
The players aren’t the only ones learning, Bechtel said. He only recently re-arrived at Damien and until that happened a few short months ago, he was less than fully unfamiliar with who most of the players were and where their individual talents lay.
“I saw Damien live against Charter Oak because we [South Hills High, where he coached that team to the Hacienda League and then the CIF Southern Section Division 6 championships in 2018] were off that night,” he said. After he was hired by Damien, he availed himself of the film footage of the team’s performances last fall. As he watched those, he said, he realized, “the positive is Damien has some pretty good football players. The biggest problem is they didn’t play together as a unit. To be successful all 11 guys have to be playing together as a unit. During the written interview I requested of them, I confirmed this disunity. They had a blame game going with each other.”
Bechtel said he knew at that point the whole team unity piece needed to be stronger.
“Obviously some kids have experience coming back, and it’s nice when you have kids that have varsity experience,” Bechtel said. “On offense there is some experience, which means this is not going to be their first dance at the varsity level and that’s always a positive. Some players have improved and excelled, and we will be returning with all-league guys, so there’s definitely a good nucleus to build from. There’s also work to be done.”
Bechtel said he is not counting on transfer players arriving at Damien before the season starts. “I don’t know of any new kids coming in,” he said. “Most of the time, by rules we’re not allowed to speak to any potential transfers. That happens at the level of the athletic director. We’re going into the summer program with guys we’ve got, and we feel good about the guys we have,” he said.
Accompanying Bechtel is a major contingent of the coaches who were with him during his successful three-year run at South Hills High School, four years at Chino Hills High prior to that, as well as Colony High School before he moved to Chino Hills, the only exception being cornerback coach James Heggins, whose experience includes coaching at Mt San Antonio College as well as eight years as the head coach at Baldwin Park High School.
With the majority of my staff, I didn’t feel I needed to choose because we have been together for so long. With the exception of Coach Heggins, the defensive coaching staff and I have been together since 2010. The continuity of staff is a big part of why the performance of my teams has been so good over the years.”
We will say it again, Bechtel is “Building a Team!”
It is our observation the boys have gravitated to Bechtel in a different way than players in the past followed their mentor. Coach Bechtel is building a wolf pack like wolves build their community. He’s conditioning the players with what comes across as an almost scientific precision, with every action proceeding from the foundation before it.
This is reminiscent of the film Reservoir Dogs, where criminals are hired to commit a robbery. The difference is these boys aren’t criminals; they’re a wolf-pack of God and they’re the Spartan Football Team being produced by Matt Bechtel instead of Quentin Tarantino. This is a for-real and legal heist where winner takes all, as in all-the-way-to-CIF all. The goal is to function as one and to prepare to react in unison when game time comes.
Bechtel’s motto of team building means everyone is aligned, everyone is responsible, everyone works together and, lastly, they will attack together as a whole and not as forlorn individuals or lone wolves. The response he receives from these teens is obvious. They accord him great respect. At the end of practice you see Bechtel walking away, leading his pack of wolves, the green and gold Spartans, following behind with awe and, once again, respect.
Bechtel is definitely following the rules and sending a strong message to the entire Spartan community. When it comes to a team hopefuls’ eligibility, Coach Bechtel is strict. Boys are being benched if they’re not meeting the GPA requirement, and if they don’t get it together, they’re not going to be eligible to play or participate in practice time, let alone game time.
Given the tremendous success Bechtel achieved at South Hills, capped with last year’s achievement, it is all the more remarkable that he is at Damien. His place at South Hills would have been secure, most likely, for the next decade. Yet, he said, he has forever longed to return to Damien, relating that whenever he was coaching elsewhere and would return to the Damien campus to participate in tournaments or other athletic endeavors, he felt like he was competing against his brothers. It was at Damien, he said, that he had learned the lion’s share of what he knows and had matured into what he is today.
As in the words of Damien’s official song, “We will return again.”
Driving him now, he said, is the desire to instill in the young men at Damien the values Damien instilled in him.
“I feel I am fortunate to have a meaningful job,” he said. “My job is to prepare these guys for life. Winning is important, but my job is to prepare these guys for after high school, to show the importance of being a good person, respecting teammates, respecting the school, and maintaining grades in order to achieve beyond school, beyond the gridiron, to be successful in life. All those things are above winning and losing.”
Damien High School, an all-male high school located across the Los Angeles/San Bernardino County line in La Verne, and its sister campus St. Lucy’s, open only to young women, are the primary venues for students residing on the west side of San Bernardino County who with their parents are intent on receiving a Catholic education.
By Grace Bernal