Friday, Nov. 22, 2013 | 2 a.m.
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With only four playoff games on the docket, Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer spend significant time on each of them. They also allow for detours on rap, juicing and ringtones. ***NOTE: We apologize for the return of audio issues, this time on Brewer's microphone. Please turn up the volume in order to hear him.
Before the Faith Lutheran High football team took the field for practice Tuesday, the players and coaches gathered in the end zone for a few minutes of devotion.
That’s how each practice starts at the Summerlin school. The Crusaders don’t stretch or go through other warmup routines without a religious lesson and prayer. And not just a prayer recited from memory — it’s something meaningful to their journey, on the field and in life.
On this day, an assistant coach reads Scripture to the players, relating the Bible verses to Faith Lutheran’s improbable run to Saturday’s Division I-A state championship game. Faith Lutheran has won 11 straight games in advancing to the state championship for the first time in school history, facing Churchill County of Fallon at Damonte Ranch in Reno for the championship.
Playing in Northern Nevada in late November is never an easy task for teams from the Las Vegas area, battling everything from colder weather and possibly snow, to a long bus ride and unfamiliar beds. Even the best local teams have fallen victim to the circumstances.
That’s one of the points of the coach’s lesson; players have already overcome long odds, partially because they are one of Nevada’s finest football teams and also because of their strong faith. He tells them they haven’t lost a road game this season and that traveling to Reno is an obstacle they can conquer.
Ever since Vernon Fox became the Faith Lutheran coach last spring, he’s programmed the players with his many catchphrases. The most constant message, “We Will Win,” has become the loudest rallying cry. It’s posted in the stadium and locker room, and is Fox’s favorite hashtag on Twitter.
Just like he predicted, they are one victory away from capturing the program’s first state title. They’ve fielded a team since the mid-1980s, and win or lose, this is their best season.
“It’s been a process. It doesn’t happen overnight,” said Fox, a former standout at Cimarron-Memorial High who played eight seasons in the NFL. “The key to it is actually experiencing a little part of success. When you are able to experience success, you can gain confidence. It is something you can build on. Winning is a habit.”
Nothing has been easy for the Crusaders along the way. And not just this season, when they lost their first two games, a pair of home contests — one in blowout fashion, the other a heartbreaking loss in overtime.
But unlike past seasons when they experienced a defeat, the players had the confidence they could accomplish their goal of a lengthy playoff run.
“When coach Fox came, his attitude toward football and how he wanted to play got to us,” said Vinny DeGeorge, who clinched Faith Lutheran’s 16-8 win last Saturday against Lowry in the state semifinals with an interception with less than a minute remaining. “The ‘We Will Win’ really got to us.”
It seemed fitting that DeGeorge, a three-year varsity performer and one of nearly 20 seniors closing their careers with a playoff run of a lifetime, have a hand in the most important win in school history.
Like DeGeorge, most of the team’s key players were sophomores three seasons ago when Faith Lutheran posted a 2-7 record and were outscored 402-116 while playing in the large-school classification’s Northwest League. The league was affectionately called the “Black and Blue Division” by coaches because of the quality and physicality of the teams — something Faith Lutheran learned the hard way.
After realignment put them in the lower Division I-A last season, the Crusaders were still a run-of-the-mill team. They took third in the Sunset League and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
But everything clicked this season.
Some of the success goes to Fox. When Jake Kothe stepped down as head coach after nearly 15 seasons last year, the school took more than two months to find a new leader. They wanted someone who meshed with the school’s religion-first mentality, and of course, someone who knew football.
They appear to have hit a home run with Fox.
While he had limited experience in coaching, his football background was unquestioned. And he's a preacher at his church.
But Fox, who played collegiate ball at Fresno State and with four NFL teams, is the first to say he’s not the lone reason for the success. Sure, he’s pushed the right buttons and put his players in the position to succeed, but they’ve done the rest.
The players, starting during a summer camp at Fresno State, found something that was previously missing: confidence. From focusing on establishing the run to being aggressive on defense, the team started to take on a new identity. They resembled their coach — tough, willing to do anything to help the team win, and spiritual.
“Vernon has been an absolute blessing in so many aspects,” Kothe said. “He is a great man of character. He is someone I respect and value. He has a gift with working with kids. He has great leadership skills and is such a high-character man of God. It’s hard not to buy-in.”
A solid senior class with the experience from that tough 2011 season has no superstars. They agree they are in this journey together, all deserving credit for their hand in the breakthrough season.
The defense was spectacular against Lowry, and late in the season, led by the likes of linebackers Danny Otuwa and Ben Flandermeyer, defensive end Hayden Solis and defensive back Ricco Gonzales. The offense has been balanced with quarterback Jacob Deaville, receivers DeGeorge, Trent Dolby and Mark Rubalcaba, and with Fabian Lagudi emerging to give them another threat in the running game. Most play both ways; all but Rubalcaba are seniors.
And, of course, there is Keenan Smith.
Smith, a senior running back, leads the entire Division I-A with 18 touchdowns, scoring at least one touchdown in 12 of the Crusaders’ 13 games. When they struggled early, he continued to run hard on each play in setting the tone for the rest of the season.
These Crusaders aren’t going to quit.
“From the very beginning I knew we were going to state. I never stopped believing,” said Flandermeyer, who started his Faith Lutheran career in its middle school program as a sixth-grader. “It didn’t look like that when we were 0-2, but that energized us to play harder. We all had faith, to be honest.”
Fox has a few rings from his college playing days when Fresno State went to three straight bowl games, and he played in an NFL playoff game.
Still, he calls last week's semifinal victory his most significant win; part of the reason is his connection to Kothe.
Kothe stayed on staff and has been crucial in helping Fox in his first season. He is widely considered one of the Las Vegas area’s most respected coaches, always getting the most out of his teams at Faith Lutheran despite often working with undersized players.
As soon as time expired against Lowry, the men hugged in celebration. It lasted for minutes — the Godfather of Faith Lutheran football with the man who guided them to their greatest moment.
“Kothe was here to build the foundation of what Crusader football is all about,” Fox said. “I was blessed to walk into something that was already built and established. Like I told the kids when I was introduced to the team, we are riding in the same plane. It’s just a different pilot. One of the great things is I have him as my co-pilot.”