Sunday, March 26, 2017

Inside the Foothill Owls

Foothill College finished 12-15 overall this season, 2-10 in the Coast Conference North, obviously not the records the Owls desired. But a rare element was achieved, something arguably more important and one that will carry over long after the 2016-17 basketball run fades.

That being human connection. Make that connections.

What the players and coaches developed, from Head Coach Matt Stanley down through the 13th man, was so much more than a four-month affiliation offered through team membership. It was an uncommon bond, an esprit de corps of fellowship and fraternity that will likely remain in effect for decades.

As Owl Associate Head Coach James Herrera candidly offered not with envy but rather respect, "in a lot of ways, I wish I could have been a player on this team."

Herrera downplays what he and Stanley set into motion. "We look for good guys to recruit. We want high character guys and we've been fortunate to get them."

But who is brought in is just part of the equation. Beyond basketball skills, what is taught and implemented in what atmosphere as well as what is stressed through daily demonstration and collaboration are all as equally important.

"We do a lot of team building," Herrera acknowledged. "Before the season and before conference, we ask the guys to write down and re-visit their goals. One player's goal was 'building strong relationships with my teammates' and another was 'getting help to becomes the best leader.' Those are pretty rare."

Unique but products of the Owl culture. "There are moments of truth throughout the season and we stayed bound together," said Herrera.

Another element Foothill utilizes is gathering the players together after every practice to offer truths. "It could be [acknowledging] a single play someone did or someone being relentless or energetic -- just recognizing good things your teammates do. It means a lot more coming from peers."

Herrera explained that Foothill received an unofficial bench warning every game simply based on the high energy emanating from the players not in the game at the time.

Let's allow some of the Owls to tell their own stories.
Vito Coppola, the sole sophomore and one of the captains of the team, got right to the point. "This is absolutely the closest team I've ever been on, all 13 guys, and the greatest group of guys I've known. In fact, it's been one of the best years of my life." In his mind, what helped was "taking a team-bonding trip to Big Sur. There was sand castle building, rafting and building a shelter -- a lot of competitions but a lot of laughing and love. Our personalities clicked." Later on, "we spent holidays together as players -- Halloween, New Year's and watching the Super Bowl. This impacted my life in so many ways. It's a tribute to our coaching staff." Asked about what is most important to him in his current recruiting process, he said, "I want to play for someone who has the same values as Coach Stanley and Coach Herrera. It doesn't matter to me what level."

Out of Homestead High, freshman DeAngelo Blackwell brought up role-modeling as a significant point. "The coaches are best friends and the players on the team became best friends. We would compete but it was like a love afterwards, bringing each other up."

Another freshman, Alex Gil-Fernandez of Gunn High, offered, "we became a very close group. Going to Big Sur allowed us to get to know everyone and the personalities clicked. Being all freshman except for one sophomore, we were sharing the same experience. Coming out of high school, we developed a bond. I'm pretty quiet and didn't know what to expect but this team hangs out together at the apartment of a couple of the players and we play video games, watch TV and do homework. We even get together there on holidays. The culture at Foothill is different to say the least -- everything is done as a team, there are no individuals. Even our losses [this season] drew us closer as a team. We were trying to figure out a fix. Vito's leadership was incredible. He would text all of us after a loss. getting us ready for the next game and showing us some love."

These young men will carry such relationships with them for the rest of their lives. In fact, Herrera and Stanley recently attended the wedding of one of their former players, Herrera as a groomsman -- that is how much the ties that bind carry beyond playing days at Foothill.

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