Aug 25, 2011 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Forget everything you’ve ever read, everything you’ve ever seen, and everything you’ve ever known about the Solvay football team.
So many factors contributed to the Bearcats’ decades of gridiron, from legendary coaches like Al Merola to hard-working, blue-collar kids that played a physical brand of football. The formations never changed, and neither did the winning results.
Sometime in the new millennium, though, the decline began. Despite the mighty efforts of Merola and his successor, Phil Merrill, Solvay’s struggles only grew and, in 2010, culminated with a 1-6 mark, one of the worst in the program’s history.
Not long after, Merrill stepped down, but Solvay didn’t look too far to replace him. And what they got, in hiring Matt Shutts on Jan. 10, was a coach who has prepared a lifetime for this opportunity.
Shutts has been a football coach for 26 years. He played under George O’Leary at Liverpool and, in the time since, has assisted at Bishop Ludden, Westhill, Fayetteville-Manlius and Ithaca High School, plus college stints at Ithaca College and Morrisville State.
For the last decade, Shutts has spent most of the time coaching JV football at Solvay while starting up the indoor track program and also coaching outdoor track. Thus, he said, he got to know a large cross-section of the school’s athletes, something that came in handy once he took the varsity football helm.
By getting some of his track athletes out for football, and taking advantage of enthusiasm for the change in direction, Shutts has 31 players on the varsity roster. But it’s the work done by these players that really tells the story of how much it has changed.
For as long as anyone can remember, Solvay played the same way – Wing-T offense, 4-3 defense, hit hard, rinse and repeat. Shutts said he has thrown it out, installing new schemes on both sides of the ball to shake things up.
And that’s not all. Every skills position was up for grabs during practices, as multiple players took turns at quarterback. Shutts said he won’t reveal his starter until right before Friday’s opener against Westhill.
Shutts said that it’s important that a team and its players be flexible and able to play multiple positions on the field. For example, on offense John Savo or Luke Cometti could line up at quarterback, or tailback, or wide receiver. Or top lineman Joe Watkins could be a tackle, guard or center.
The point, said Shutts, is to keep opponents constantly guessing, never showing the same play or formation too many times – in other words, a total contrast to the predictability of seasons past.
Ever since February, Shutts, his staff and the players have spent their time together installing this new playbook. That work continued, on and off, for six months, until practices started.
“We had a tremendous preseason,” he said. “They’re learning the system quickly, and there’s no confusion. It’s been fun. They can’t wait to hit somebody else.”
The long-term aim, of course, is to return the Bearcats to the winning form it enjoyed for so long, but it won’t be easy. Westhill, even at home, and even with the Warriors using a lot of new players in key roles, is a tough opening assignment. Trips to Mexico and Phoenix follow, and Solvay has just three home games overall.
At the very least, though, Shutts, with his new methods, is going to make sure that the Bearcats are an entertaining show, and much more difficult for other teams to figure out.