SPRING HILL — The Crystal River and Seven Rivers Christian football programs are perhaps as far apart as they come in terms of offensive philosophy — the Pirates like to wear you down with a punishing running game, while the Warriors rely on a multi-starter of the year at quarterback to largely distinguish you in the air – but one definite similarity of the head coaches is the emphasis they both place on special teams.
The two Citrus County schools were part of nearly 20 teams at Tuesday’s North Suncoast Media Day at the Springstead High School Theater. The event, part of the 2022 Varsity Sports Network and FloridaHSFootball.com Media Day Tour, gave head coaches and several players from each program the opportunity to talk about last season, Spring Ball and summer and a preview of the upcoming fall campaign. Citrus and Lecanto were invited, but not present.
The Pirates, under head coach Cliff Lohrey, and the Warriors, under head coach Monty Vann, have always emphasized special teams and this year will be no different. Their exact philosophies towards special teams are very different, but both always emphasize the importance of this often overlooked area of the game.
Lohrey has one of the best kickers in the region and Florida State in Zach Van Fleet, while Vann has the numbers to back up his special teams training strategy.
Pirates pin you deep
Kick-off can be a very exciting game in football, with hard crashes and long comebacks. But if Lohrey is successful this season, when the Pirates kick off, it will be the most boring game of the game. Behind Van Fleet’s big leg, the Pirates don’t expect the other team to even have a chance to come back, forcing the forwards to run the full length of the pitch.
“It’s a significant difference. There just aren’t enough teams, players — and more often than players, it’s usually coaches — who are patient enough to drive the pitch,” Lohrey said. “So if you can force the teams to do it. I think that will work in our favour. He’s another defensive player. We expect him to hit a touchdown every time this year. Have the teams lead the field.
“I grew up a traditionalist, in terms of running the ball, stopping the run and super special teams. This will give you a great chance of winning every game you play. Not guaranteed, but gives you a great luck.
Van Fleet will also be a key part in attack and defense this season, but he is best known for his effect on the game with his leg and is proud of it.
“It has a very huge effect on how the game plays out. If you can fend off a team at kick-off, that sets up your defence,” he said. “We take it very personally with our special teams and use it to our advantage.”
And on offense, Lohrey knows he can call on his special teams unit to try and put some points on the board once they enter enemy territory.
“If we’re on 30 and in, we’ll take a chance. We feel really good in our special teams and he is obviously the focus of it, but there are a lot of players who have to work together, provide protection, provide cover,” Lohrey said. “But that’s really part and parcel of the game. So not only being strong on special teams, but having a weapon on special teams, that changes our mentality.
Van Fleet said he felt comfortable attempting kicks between 30 and 45 yards and could even extend to 50 if needed.
“I’ve been playing soccer since I was about five years old. So I always kicked the ball,” he said. “Hitting a soccer ball is a bit different, but it feels like the same technique. I just practiced and worked hard almost all my life.
Play the numbers game
And while Lohrey likes to see his kickoffs as far as possible and force the other team to march the full length of the pitch, Coach Vann has the opposite strategy. Many times in a game, the Warriors will attempt an onside kick – whether after scoring or even at the start of the game or in the second half – for a chance to win the ball back straight away.
But for Coach Vann, it’s not enough to hope that his powerful attack will get more shots in a game.
“It’s definitely a numbers game. With us having a small group of guys, the mentality is that I don’t want my 11 guys who are on kickoff who are also playing defense, as much as we score, to give them another 60-yard sprint,” said he declared. “And sometimes we score seven or eight times a game, so I just added 480 yards to that. So I’m not interested in adding 480 meters of sprint for our guys.
“So try to get the ball back. It keeps us fresh, less injuries and on top of that we have the chance to get bonus possession. It makes sense that we do it like that with a smaller team.
Five-year-old starting quarterback Nehemiah Vann said the offense appreciates the confidence the coach has in this unit to try and get extra possessions.
“It’s exciting to see the confidence the coach has in our attack. It gives us the opportunity to prove him right and for the guys to step in,” Nehemiah Vann said.
But the onside kick isn’t the only strategic special teams coach Vann often employs. It’s also rare to see the Warriors punt in a game, no matter how deep they can be backed into their own territory. The numbers game also plays a role in this decision.
“I’ve heard a great saying that it’s not a bet, it’s more of a calculated move. There are times when we have punted where we have gone deep into our territory, but if we go over 20, we go there, ”he said. “It’s one of those trades where if I have a quarterback that can pull it off, in terms of the math, we’re more likely to get a first down than turn the pitch. In high school you throw the ball 40 yards, a kid easily returns it 10-15 yards, it’s only a 25 yards difference. I’m a numbers guy, so I’d rather go for a 4th and a 12 than just flip the ball 25 yards down and eat more clock.
The approaches can be very different, but the only similarity is this – attend a Crystal River or Seven Rivers Christian football game this fall and you will see a priority given to special teams.