Monday afternoon at the Webb City football practice field. The first practice since a heartbreaking loss to the five-times-our-size neighbor to the south. That makes three years in a row that the Cardinals have lost to Joplin.
It’s hot. It’s humid. The smells of grass, sweat, and leather are in the air. The coordinators and position coaches are working with a less than full squad of younger players. The coaches are focused on tight press coverage from the defensive backs and zone recognition from the linebackers. The offense is running various pass plays, changing up the routes. Line up. Run the play. Intense focus on where the defenders are looking as the pass pattern develops. Vocal, consistent feedback from the coaches. Lather, rinse, repeat. I sweated off three pounds just watching the guys running around like the high motor teenagers they are.
Head Coach John Roderique takes it all in. When he has something to say, it is like the E.F. Hutton commercial. When Coach Rod talks, people listen.
Wednesday afternoon. Today’s practice is in the stadium. Yours truly has a ton of memories here, almost all good. The changes to the stadium through the years are evident, impressive, and fills one with a sense of pride that really cannot be explained to folks who don’t live here. Different, yet the same.
“For the first game of the season, we played pretty good,” Coach Roderique said about the last-minute loss to Joplin on Friday night. “I am very proud of our guys. We are a young team, a lot of new starters. To battle back after being down two scores the way they did, I couldn’t be prouder.”
Some, if not most, head coaches with John Roderique’s pedigree would respond to an opening game loss in a much different way. Extra sprints. An in-your-face, spit flying, eyes bulging, “I will not tolerate this” approach. Not John. His credibility is at such a high level with his players that he can teach, coach, demonstrate, correct, and encourage his players in a way that is both meaningful and rare. His kids understand how fortunate they are to have Coach Rod. And it shows at practice.
I followed Coach around the field on Wednesday. In one long session, coaches are working with the offensive line. Identifying various defensive fronts, going over responsibilities, who does what, and which pre-snap calls get made. The feedback is, again, clear and consistent. There is no room for doubt about whether the right tackle did his job correctly during the last rep. When you hear the head coach holler “On the Ball!” well, that means he is not satisfied. Yet. Run it again. More feedback. “On the Ball!” When Coach likes what he sees, you hear “great job!” or another encouraging phrase.
Next up was a series of drills with the running backs. Ball security. Footwork. Tempo. Know your job. The fundamentals of football that may not be sexy, but they are the foundation of championship teams.
“The season is a process,” Roderique says more than once. The offense is not fully introduced at this early point in the season. Each week brings a different focus and ways to attack the opposing defense. “Last year, we lost the first game, also to Joplin. Then we won 11 straight. We will improve every week going forward, and part of our process is to have this team peaking about Week 10.”
Spoken with the quiet confidence of a man who has delivered more state championships than you can count on two hands to our proud city.