By Adam Roberts – 9/30/2020
This week, the Coulee Region will get a rare treat that has come up as a result of the pandemic: a unique high school football match up. Despite a school size difference of 764 students and a distance of 128 miles apart, the Onalaska (RV in AP Large Division, #4 in Wissports.net D3 Coaches Poll) and Edgar (#1, #1 D7) programs will face each other this Friday night, barring any sudden changes this week.
Before ESPN La Crosse 105.5 heads out to Onalaska for the first time this season, I got a chance to speak with one of the all-time greats who will be coaching opposite Tom Yashinsky and the Hilltoppers this week. Jerry Sinz has been head coach for the Wildcats since 1975, and during that time has complied numerous state titles and recorded a 432-85 overall record. That’s the second most wins in state history, behind only Bob Hyland of St. Mary’s Springs, my old ball coach. Sinz and I discussed this week’s matchup, their week one win over Athens, and building brotherhood when protocol dictates separation. Here’s a portion of that conversation.
Adam Roberts: Looking at your Week One win over Athens, considering that this offseason was conducted very different circumstances, what did you see that you could take away from the game as a positive?
Coach Sinz: I think we were maybe a little too fired up initially. It was supposed to be our sixth game instead of our first and of course our practices are much, much shorter than they would be in a normal year. Offensively, we weren’t real sharp early, defensively I thought we played well. We actually scrimmaged Mosinee the week before and I thought we played a little bit better in the scrimmage. Though that was probably because the coaches could be on the field.
AR: We’re seeing a number of unique, match ups this season due to scheduling issues, including games this this that normally due to size difference probably wouldn’t happen. I know Coach Hyland flat out refused to ever have us at Springs play Fond du Lac due to the potential problems that can bring. This has to be interesting from a preparation stand point given the size difference, right?
CS: The last couple of years, we’ve scrimmaged against Menomonie, Medford, and we used to do so against Eau Claire Memorial; my nephew Mike coaches at Memorial, but they got out of it and now have a different arrangement so we’ve added [Eau Claire] Regis instead. We continually try to do that just to get our team ready for the toughest competition they might see; the last couple of years in nonconference we’ve played Baldwin-Woodville, and they’ve got about 500 kids. So we don’t make much of a point of that as coaches here.
AR: Speaking of Menomonie, you and head coach Joe LaBuda both are quite familiar with each other, obviously. What’s it like going one-on-one, even in a scrimmage, against a coach who with the Mustangs has had comparable success to yourself?
CS: Yeah it’s fun, we like it! The nephew I talked about at Eau Claire Memorial, he played for [LaBuda]. We enjoy competing against each other. It’s always a respectful, clean interaction. If we run something that works well against them, he’ll come up to me and go ‘Alright, show us that, slower’, and if they trick us with something, I’ll do the same. It’s competitive and inspiring, but yet it’s friendly!
AR: Your quarterback, Konnor Wolf…I know you said the offensive production was a bit iffy against Athens, but what things has Konnor improved most in from his junior to senior season?
CS: He definitely has improved his arm strength, and he’s a very fiery kind of a kid, a good leader. He actually threw the ball pretty darn well last week, we just flat-out dropped about two or three of them where he hit is guys right in the hands. So even though we went 5-11, he could have easily gone 8 or 9 for 11. And he’s improved his speed as well. We’re really happy with how he’s performing.
AR: Can you tell me a little bit about what I would call “The Edgar Way” for those who maybe have heard of the program’s success but maybe don’t know much about your coaching philosophy or scheme?
CS: Overall, just do your job, and don’t get overly excited over a great play or down on yourself after a bad one. We preach to take a game play-by-play, because the next play is the most important one. We also of course have to stress staying safe and healthy, especially this year. Schematically, we rely a lot on special teams. You may have noticed watching the Athens game, they just refused to punt to us. They have a very good punter and they constantly punted out of bounds. And teams have done that to us for years, they don’t want us to get anything going in the punt return game.
AR: Looking ahead to this week, Onalaska under Tom Yashinsky is very aggressive offensively, I mean I vividly remember the 62-55 shootout with Sparta in 2018. What will you need to see from your defense this week?
CS: Well this year we might just be blessed with the most speed we’ve ever had, so we’re hoping we’ll match up okay on the perimeter with them. But above all, don’t make mistakes, do your job, don’t get tricked, and then just play the game and have fun.
AR: Before I let you go, coaching a contact sport like football in a pandemic has to be one of the biggest challenges of your career, when all the protocol dictates that we need to be as separated as possible. That includes building relationships also; is there anything your boys have been able to do in order to build those relationships given that they can’t be as close as maybe they’d like?
CS: We’ve talked with the guys about having little hand signals that mean something to each other, little eye contact things. Yeah, you can’t high five, so they have signals instead that they give to one another. I spoke to the coaches about this the other day; I said basically that mankind is a social being and is also a creature of habit. When it comes to forcing the kids apart, I don’t think that’s a good direction to be following. I hope we can get through this soon, because the social distancing thing is definitely contrary to what we as coaches teach.
Coverage Friday night begins with the High School Football Preview Show at 6pm on ESPN La Crosse 105.5, espnlacrosse.com, and TuneIn!