Prep preview '13 -- These Northern Valley Huskies have success in their blood
By CONOR NICHOLL
ALMENA - Almena-Northern Valley senior running back Jordan Baird smiled and issued a long laugh when asked if he felt high expectations to match the Huskies' tradition.
"I have felt pressure my whole life to be good," Baird said.
Baird's father, Shane, is one of northwest Kansas' all-time best athletes and still holds the rushing record (1,573 yards in 1984) in the 37-year era for coach Chuck Fessenden at Northern Valley. Jordan Baird has played football since fourth grade and has had many conversations with his father about Northern Valley's dominance that included three state titles and four runner-up finishes from '82 to '90, plus titles in boys' basketball and track.
"You have your family, they are all used to winning," Baird said. "You don't want to really let anybody down."
This fall, Northern Valley, with many players and coaches with ties to the Huskies' great run, look to play deep into November and possibly for the school's first title in 23 years. Northern Valley hasn't made the playoffs since 2005, but has increased its win total in each of the last four seasons, including a 7-2 mark last fall.
"This is probably our best chance," said Fessenden, who is 260-118 in his career.
The Huskies return six starters on both sides, including Baird and senior quarterback Hunter Chandler, both three-year starters. Senior guard Ian Vincent is a four-year starter and arguably the best lineman in Huskies' history. Chandler's dad, Shad, was a center for a championship team. Vincent's dad played on Fessenden's first squad.
Junior guard Ame Baird's dad is a Northern Valley graduate. Junior defensive back Matt Stutsman's mother is from the Cox family and grew up in Northern Valley. Junior tight end Clint Cole's dad, Jim, was a former Husky and now is the junior high coach.
Junior tight end Brant Cox's dad, Brad, is a varsity assistant and graduated in '91. Junior starting center Carson Montgomery's mom is from the area as well. Junior Phillip Bryant doesn't have Husky ties, but led the team with 108 tackles last fall.
"I want to be good like my parents," Baird said.
The group could help Northern Valley enjoy its first season of more than eight victories since a 9-3 mark in 2000. From 1982-2000, the Huskies won at least nine games 14 times, including three undefeated years. This season's team is bigger size-wise than the state squads and has plenty of experience.
"We were real successful for a long time. We had real good kids, but we had super speed, too," Fessenden said. "I don't think people realize how fast these guys were. They were really fast. Then, we kind of got into a period were we had kids that weren't really in the Long Island, Almena area.
"You had kids moving in from other places," he added. "They didn't understand the tradition, and we didn't have quite the athletes. A lot of it just was, they weren't from here. They hadn't been around it. These guys, their dads all played, and they are from here, and they understand the tradition. A lot of other kids do, too."
The tradition starts with Fessenden, Kansas' longest-tenured eight-man coach. Among current coaches, only Class 3A Silver Lake's C.J. Hamilton, the state's all-time winningest coach, has spent more time with one team than Fessenden.
"I have had other opportunities, because we won a lot, so I could have left a long time ago, but then you always hated to leave, because you always had a good group of kids coming back," Fessenden said. "You hated to leave those kids behind. You always just kind of stayed and stayed and stayed. Here I am."
Fessenden now coaches against many people he formerly coached against as players or coached in the eight-man all-star game. He named Wallace County's Kevin Ayers and Jetmore-Hodgeman County's Matt Housman as two successful coaches who came from the eight-man ranks.
"You have a lot of coaches now that have played eight-man football, so the coaching is a lot better," Fessenden said. "Because a lot of times you had kids that came into coaching and they were 11-man football players, and they didn't know anything about it and they were learning. Now you have coaches that have played eight-man. They know all about it."
Unlike many other football coaches, Fessenden is a math teacher and doesn't teach weights during the day. He does run the summer weights program, but doesn't have a team camp. The junior high runs the same scheme as high school. Fessenden is well-known for his preparation and teaching skills.
"The way he teaches is still the same, and I think that's what makes him a great coach," Coach Cox said. "He teaches the game. He still loves being a math teacher. He still loves coaching because it is teaching and that's what he does a good job of. He breaks things down, so that kids can understand them. A lot of coaches were maybe great athletes, but they were not teachers. You have got to be a teacher and a coach. A lot of other coaches don't last that long."
Cox recalled Fessenden prepared weeks ahead for playoff games. In his senior year, Cox remembered going down to Fort Hays for math relays around three weeks before the postseason.
Fessenden was already acquiring film. Cox asked Fessenden if he was overconfident. Fessenden said, "Failure to prepare is preparing to fail," a line that has stayed with Cox for 23 years. Even last season, Northern Valley lost 60-14 to Thunder Ridge. Northern Valley prepared and scouted well, but couldn't take down physical fullback Trevor Lowe. Northern Valley was the only Eight-Man, Division II school that won seven or more games last season but missed the playoffs. Still, soon after 2012 ended, Fessenden quickly started talking about next season to Cox.
"That's what I respect about him," Cox said. "He knows when there are some good teams, and he knows when there's not, but he coaches every year and every team the same."
Northern Valley still runs the Midway-Denton misdirection trap offense as its base look, an offense that was popular in the '80s with Northern Valley and powerhouse Midway-Denton. Even six years ago, four eight-man teams listed the Midway offense/misdirection trap as its base look. Now, only Northern Valley does, according to Kansas Pregame magazine. Cox called the scheme "not easy," but said Fessenden and teaches it well. Plus, the offense is a rarity - the majority of teams run I formation, option or spread - that it makes preparation difficult.
"Some people think that you have got to change up," Cox said. "No you don't. If you do things right, it all comes down to the fundamentals, blocking the right guy and being fundamentally sound, it's going to work."
The offense features plenty of misdirection and it's hard for defenses to find the ball. Usually, Bryant, the fullback, goes up the middle. Baird goes to the left, Chandler to the right. Linemen pull and go in different directions. The Huskies will also run some option and read-option, too.
"I think that is a little bit of an advantage just because a lot of people aren't running it anymore," Fessenden said.
Northern Valley is expected to be run-heavy again. Last year, the team averaged 337 rushing yards per game. Chandler led with 1,111, while Baird had 993 and Bryant, 811. Chandler finished with a 0/5 TD/INT ratio. Fessenden would like to pass better, but also wanted to focus on the team's strengths. In Week 5 last season, Northern Valley lost 32-28 to St. John's-Beloit.
"We tried to pass when we shouldn't have," Fessenden said.
Once, Northern Valley scored, kicked off, and recovered a fumble on the kickoff. Northern Valley tried a pass on first down, but Beloit sacked Chandler for a 10-yard loss.
"If we ran the ball, we could have surely picked up a first down in four downs the way we run the ball," Fessenden said. "We are still going to be a run-first team, and we all pretty much have been. We had that element of a pass. That when we threw a pass, it was usually going to be a touchdown, and that's what we need to be able to do is that when we do pass, we need to be able to complete it and make a big play with it."
The St. John's-Beloit loss helped keep Northern Valley from the postseason. This year, the Huskies look to reach November - and match the tradition that started thirty years ago.
"We want to make the playoffs," Baird said.
"We want to be the team, our senior year, that puts the team in the playoffs again. Just hit the weight room and use that confidence to be better than everyone else."