“The selflessness that is needed in football is unique,” explained John, Thacher’s quarterback during the team’s best ever season. “There’s an understanding and a requirement for each person to give his all.”
Guided by Coach Jeff Hooper and led by a talented and focused group of seniors, the Toads’ eight-man football program saw a historic 2104 season—its most successful since the sport first arrived at Thacher in 2002.
By almost every measure, it was a standout year. The team went undefeated in the regular season for the first time, notching a 9-0 record and winning their league for the sixth time in ten years. They beat rival Cate for the first time in three years and in general outscored opponents by more than 2 to 1, averaging more than 44 points per game. Their record was marked by only one defeat—the CIF Southern Section Championship in late November, which they lost by a single heartbreaking point.
The 2014 team drew from a strong pool of deeply committed seniors and a roster of competitive younger players, setting a high standard for future Toads. But even with their string of record-setting victories, what really set this season apart in the eyes of the coaches was the team’s character and esprit de corps. “Far more important than the wins and losses,” wrote Coach Hooper in his season report, “ was the incredible sense of camaraderie that characterized this group. Our seniors provided stellar leadership and this was among the closest, most cohesive groups we’ve had the pleasure to work with.”
The 2014 Lineup
Like the story of any great season, the Toads’ memorable 2014 run was the braiding together of many stories—of players and coaches combining to create something that was stronger than the sum of its individual strands.
We start with the quarterback. If you’d seen John as a scrawny freshman from San Francisco, you wouldn’t have picked him to QB the team as a senior and earn All-CIF First Team recognition, but passion, hard work, and sharp instincts got him there and the record speaks for itself. Selected as one of two “most improved players” at the end of the season, he came away with a lot more than improved skills.
“My experience on the football team,” said John, “taught me how to be a competitor and an athlete. It taught me how to approach the game as a senior, after a maturation period where I learned to control my emotions under stress and how to work well with my teammates. These valuable lessons I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”
Stuart, another San Franciscan and a second-generation Toad, arrived at Thacher focused exclusively on playing lacrosse and didn’t even join the football team his freshman year. But, the coaches are used to working with a range of backgrounds and Stuart ended up as a highly valuable asset on a team that was deep with talent, one of those dependable guys who combined natural speed and athleticism with a willingness to fill in as needed. The coaches agreed that he was “completely reliable and dedicated to his teammates.”
Mitch, a lanky Ojai boy, was slowed by injury in the early season, but he eventually hit his stride and developed into an essential weapon on both sides of the ball. In the early season he had a tendency to shy away from contact, but, as the season advanced, he became tougher, more tenacious, and utterly committed to his teammates. He developed into a vocal leader and gave the very best of himself to the team. What’s more, he never lost his sense of humor, bringing much-needed levity to the toughest moments. He earned All-CIF honors.
Mitch wasn’t the only player to struggle with injury. Alex from Brooklyn, New York, a talented singer-songwriter off the field, started the season with solid experience and great promise, only to dislocate his shoulder in a preseason practice. But after a prolonged rehab process, Alex rallied and found his niche on the team by honing his unrelenting pass rush. His coach observed that “Alex has the quickest first two steps I’ve seen on any lineman in my time at Thacher.” This would prove to be his biggest asset during the final four weeks of the season (mainly the playoffs), when the team came up against some pass-heavy offenses.
Kipper, a boy from the Bay Area, brought size, smarts, and enormous enthusiasm to the 2014 lineup. He showed up to preseason camp fitter than anybody and bursting with a passion to play. But the first half of the first game brought a major setback: an injury that kept him sidelined for the rest of the season. And yet there he was throughout the fall, loudly cheering his “brothers” on and boosting morale from the edge of the field. “It was vital for the younger guys to see that style of leadership,” noted Coach Hooper.
At 6’ 1” and 185 pounds, Ben, who hailed from Greenwich, Connecticut, was one of the bigger players and a difference-maker on both sides of the ball. Tremendously athletic, tenacious, and quick, he brought great hands and a knack for making tackles in the backfield. He was also one of the most powerful weapons Coach Hooper has ever had at wide receiver, even mixing in some time at quarterback near the end of the year. But Ben’s biggest contributions came on defense, where he was positively electric. When he really got rolling, creating turnovers and becoming essentially unblockable for the other team, the effect was infectious for all of his teammates. “Ben’s competitive side makes him flirt with insanity when the game gets going,” said Assistant Coach Aaron Snyder, “and that wild look in his eye was perhaps the single most inspiring factor for Thacher football this season.” He was named to the All-CIF First Team.
Nate, from Portland, Oregon, was the coaches’ Swiss army knife, ably playing five of the eight offensive positions and four of the eight defensive positions. “That’s simply extraordinary,” explained Coach Hooper. “It calls for immense smarts and an extremely varied and deep skill set. He was one of our top receivers, blockers, and tacklers, and he always knew what to do and where to go.” With the team’s small roster and long list of injuries, Nate’s versatility proved critical to the team’s success. But his contributions didn’t end with skills. In practice, he always knew just when to cut the tension with a joke, and when to demand seriousness and intensity from his peers. He, too, was named All-CIF First Team.
Jordan (running back/cornerback) and Griffin (cornerback/wide receiver) were two more talented, selfless, and positive players whose skills had improved dramatically over the previous years. Griffin, easygoing off the field, worked hard on his blocking during the season, managing to tap into a disciplined ferocity that opened up big holes for his teammates. Meanwhile, Jordan’s sharp wit provided a healthy balance to the seriousness of many of the other seniors. And at the start of the second half, you could always find Jordan leading the “Who’s got my back?” chant, firing up the team for its return to the field.
Marshall, who played offensive line and linebacker, was a hardworking and gifted student who earned praise from his teachers in the School’s most difficult courses, played violin in the classical ensemble, and brought his great work effort to the gridiron. Unfortunately, by the end of his junior year, the coaches weren’t convinced that effort alone would earn Marshall much playing time in the fall. What they didn’t count on was the gym time he would put in over the summer or the new intensity he would bring to the field. With his increased bulk and newly developed appetite for contact, Marshall had transformed himself into one of the most reliable blockers on offense and one of the biggest hitters on defense. The metamorphosis was positively inspirational to his teammates, who ended up voting him most improved (along with QB John).
Co-captains Manny from Houston and Lukas from Ojai rounded out the seniors. Both played mostly as linebackers and fullbacks and both offered much to the team on the field and off. Like so many of his teammates, Manny blended brains with considerable talent—and was quick with his winning smile. Lukas was a tank of a rusher and turned the tide for his team on more than one occasion, which earned him recognition as offensive player of the year for the CIF Southern Section 8 Man Division I. “It was nice having the title of captain,” said Lukas, “but I did not feel more important than the other seniors out there—they were all good leaders and the responsibility was shared.” He would go on to play football at Middlebury College as a freshman the following year.
Through it all, these seniors—along with every other player on the team—made the sacrifices for one another that allow a group of individual players to align their efforts in a way that one team after another found unstoppable. And unstoppable they were: Kipper, the guy injured in game one, stepped up for just one more game. His protracted recovery process meant he still hadn’t made it back on the field by the final game of the regular season. But he was desperate to dress one last time and the coaches were happy to grant him that.
“Of course, losing the championship game 21 to 20 was disappointing, because we had that one goal in mind. But a few days later, after everything settled down, we came to terms with the loss,” said Lukas after it was all said and done. “It was pretty apparent that even though we lost this one game, we did not lose the whole season. We were a group of great guys coming together, working hard every single day, and we had some really good times. Football helped and guided me while at Thacher,” Lukas continued. “I felt at home with this team of brothers. Whenever I was going through something or having a hard time, I could always turn to them.”
And so the historic season came to a close. The boys moved from total focus and commitment on the football field to new opportunities and pursuits—soccer, basketball, lacrosse, rock climbing, horseback riding. The trick was figuring out how to take everything they’d learned and apply it to other areas in their lives. Kipper and Lukas, along with classmate Sarah, worked together on a year-long project on global water issues, including researching water conservation methods to be implemented by Thacher. Ben spent time every week at nearby Monica Ros School, helping gradeschoolers with their studies. Several of the boys were prefects in the freshman and sophomore boys’ dorms, helping younger students navigate life at Thacher.
And by June, these seniors graduated. They left the team in the capable hands of the juniors, now rising to become seniors. But going into the 2015 season, these new leaders knew one thing for certain: they had a daunting set of cleats to fill.
Training Camp 2015
The 2015 season starts like every other, in the heat of an Ojai August. The boys are in the middle of preseason camp, five grueling days of tough practices that start on the field at 6 a.m. They’re tired, they’re sore, and they’re learning to gel and to focus on team-building and camaraderie. “Training camp is an intensive experience, focused on what we are doing as a team. It’s fun, rewarding, busy, and hard,” says Coach Hooper, who believes that in order to win at a high level it helps to have naturally competitive kids who prepare in the summer by lifting weights and getting into shape before training camp begins.
Sam, one of the seniors this year, agrees. “I think training camp is the most important part of our season. The whole team gets into a real grind. We get through it the best we can and emerge as a better team. It really sets the tone for the rest of the year.”
And this season—with only four seniors and very few veteran players—the 2015 team knows that they’ll need it.
As long as Thacher has had a football team, Hooper has been its coach. Recruited by the School thirteen years ago to launch the program, Coach Hoop has put his unmistakable mark on it. He was quick to recognize the strategic advantage of having really smart players to work with and he devotes a lot of attention to helping his teams understand the game at a deep intellectual level, and then to bring that understanding into the game. For his players, this cerebral style of coaching is as much a part of the experience as the game itself. Assistant coach Chris Thomas played for Hooper back when he attended Thacher and recalls Coach’s way of playing smart while instilling his vigor, passion, and love of the game in the players. “It becomes a transformative experience for the players. Coach Hooper has had tremendous success in producing consistently good and competitive teams, even from a small pool of students, and that speaks to his ability to teach the game.”
Thomas particularly remembers the pre-game talks on Friday afternoons. “Coach Hooper is very intentional with his language, directing the team with his tone, his optimism, and his ability to instill confidence in young men in a way that I wish I knew how to do!”
Players and coaching staff both agree that they feel well-prepared before every game. A lot of that has to do with the way Coach Hooper teaches, the amount of work he puts into the game itself, and his knack for empowering the assistant coaches and the captains.
Coach Hooper puts it like this: “My job as coach is to create a team that derives a lot of personal meaning from their participation.”
The skills of Coach Hooper, along with his assistant coaches, Aaron Snyder (now in his eleventh year coaching football at Thacher), Conner Schryver, and Chris Thomas (who both played together under coach Hooper when they attended Thacher), come into play as each new season begins. This one is no different. They’re assessing the players and tailoring plans to each one, keeping in mind how they can best support the entire team when the regular season comes around. Lukas, since graduated and now playing at Middlebury, had a lot of faith in this process. “Coach always knows what formations to run and how to work with the players he has.”
As training camp comes to an end Coach Hoop is excited and hopeful for the 2015 season, despite the large shoes the team has to fill and the relative inexperience of the players. He’s keeping two dual goals in mind: achieving another championship season, and, most importantly, instilling sportsmanship, confidence, teamwork, and self-respect in his players. With the memory of last year’s extraordinary season still fresh at hand, the bar is set high. “Every year I feel like we have a great, cohesive team that loves each other, works hard, and does all the things we want them to do.”
Now it’s time for Coach Hooper to develop the team’s next crew of top student leaders. The team chooses its captains by a vote, but it is Hooper and the other coaches who will mold them into the influencers they will need to be. Tucker, Sam, and Chase, all seniors, will be the 2015 season captains. Assistant coach Thomas knows firsthand the responsibilities these boys are taking on. “A captain must be a role model of preparation and performance for his teammates,” he explains. Captains need to energize the team, maintain regular communication, and develop an awareness of the inner workings of their teammates. They’re the ones who are able to reach out to those who may be struggling, and they keep the coaches up to date on the health and well-being of every player.
As the regular season begins, the new batch of seniors are stepping into their roles as team leaders. Practices take on a different rhythm, with one 90 minute session per day and a new focus on preparing for the opponent in each upcoming game.
“Coach Hooper’s entire philosophy surrounding football is that the team really belongs to the seniors,” says John. “He puts a lot of responsibility on them to adopt leadership positions for the team.”
This year, about seven students out of twenty-four have had actual football experience before coming to Thacher. This leadership will be more important than ever.
Chase, newly appointed captain, came to Thacher with no football experience as a freshman and struggled most of that year and his sophomore year. He made progress in the 2014 season but spent a lot of time on the bench, given how well appointed that unprecedented team was.
This year he’s developing into a key player, and an inspiration to others. He’s stuck with the program, worked hard, and stayed focused.
Coach Hooper takes note of Chase’s contributions to the team. “Chase had an excellent day yesterday in the first game of the season,” he writes. “Late in the game, we were down 34-22, and had the ball on our own ten yard line. We threw a pass to Chase, which was under-thrown. He came back for the ball, which was tipped by a defender, and maintained concentration to make a really tough catch, then dashed to the end zone. It was a big play that put us back in the game.”
Jacques, a junior leader of the defense, plays brilliantly in the first game of the season, too. But, in a twist of fate that echoes Kipper’s in 2014, Jacques is injured late in the game. As the season continues, Coach Hooper is impressed by Jacques’ attitude after such a setback. “This was a very tough development for him emotionally. But instead of feeling sorry for himself, Jacques was right on the sidelines, supporting his teammates and continuing to personify the kind of leadership and team-first spirit that we hope to inspire.”
There’s a mounting excitement among the players and the coaches. Older students are coming into their own. Less experienced players are making strides under the careful direction of Hooper and the other coaches, as well as the captains. With a historic season behind them and a fresh season in front of them, senior Sam sums it up best.
“My goal for the season ahead is to lead our team to the best success possible. I want to feel satisfied!”
On September 12, 2015, the Toads played their first game of the 2015 season against the Pathranagat Valley Panthers from Nevada. This very small school from a very small town amazingly holds the title for the nation’s longest active high school football winning streak: eighty-one games. The Panthers took an early lead 14-0, using an aggressive attack, which stalled the Toads’ offense. But the Thacher players pushed back, taking a 16-14 lead on a long run by Laurence, a junior. Word on the sidelines went that it was the first time in three years that the Panthers had been behind. The game continued with strong play by both teams, but by halftime the Panthers came back with a 26-16 lead, and later sealed a win.“The game was great. We lost 34-30, but it was a big step forward for us and I was most pleased,” said Coach Hooper.
That game was a harbinger of a very solid season for a team in the midst of rebuilding. The high spirits and hope built during training camp couldn’t change the fact that Coach Hooper had a young and inexperienced team that still had some growing to do. But throughout the season, the boys stepped up to one challenge after another. In league play, Thacher beat opponents Villanova, Laguna Blanca, and Orcutt Academy. The only loss came from old rivals Cate, who went on to reclaim the league championship. Still, the Toads moved into the playoffs with a respectable 5-3 record and cleared the first round with a commanding 52-14 win against Calvary Chapel of Downey. Leading the day for the team was Laurence, who set a Thacher record with five receiving touchdowns totaling 194 yards. That win set up a rematch with Faith Baptist of Canoga Park, familiar foes. The Toads had defeated them earlier in the year in a 36-30 home victory. But this time the hard fought back-and-forth battle did not go their way. The Toads came up short, losing 28-20. But the boys had battled to the end and, despite numerous injuries, they never gave up.
Ultimately, it was another season of hard work, selflessness, camaraderie, and growth. And the cycle continues: A strong group of juniors are set to return in 2016 as seniors to take up their duties as leaders of the squad. Once back in Ojai’s August heat, Coaches Hooper, Snyder, and Thomas will put them through their paces, where it will become obvious who grew, or practiced, or put on muscle over the summer. And everybody will be eager to see what talents the new batch of recruits might bring. Then, together, they’ll set their eyes on recapturing the magic of that 2014 season.