high school football

Benson sweats out summer

The schools' athletic program will continue after some worries
By Cliff Pfenning, oregonsports.com

PORTLAND - For an athletic program that survived plenty of rumors of being cut entirely this summer, Monday’s opening day of conditioning practices was a welcome relief at Benson High School.

Now, the real sweating begins.

Benson’s fall teams, as with all other programs across the state, began non-contact drills Monday heading into one of the hottest forecasts on record. And, they’re happy to deal with it.

"We were all a little bit nervous about what might happen," senior Tariq Walker said Monday. "I'm glad to be on the field again. I'm not worried about the heat, or the season really. I don't know how many guys we might have come out, or what to expect about winning, so it's just go out and play hard and do the best you can. That's what we can focus on."

Benson's football team is set to play an independent schedule - one outside of the Portland Interscholastic League, as it did a year ago, with the goal of returning to PIL league play. Although the school is classified as 6A as with the other PIL schools, it's schedule is made up primarily of Class 5A schools, and other independent teams - Glencoe of Hillsboro is also playing an independent schedule.

Third-year head coach Devarieous Sly-Clay said he felt confident the Techmen would play this fall, in all varsity sports, based on conversations and testimony from coaches to the district in spring. But, he said he wasn't fully given the green light until early July.

"(The district athletic office) pretty much told us they weren't going to cut athletics this year," Sly-Clay said. "But, they didn't say anything about next year.

"They're doing a lot of data collection to see whether athletics works out here, but they're missing a key point in getting input from the kids. It makes a huge difference to a lot of these kids to have athletics at their school. Hopefully, they'll take that into consideration."

Benson dropped football in 2014 due to low numbers, and is slowly bringing it back in spite of not having any kind of feeder program. The PIL is promoting youth football with posters across the community, but it only represents eight of the nine schools - Benson does not have a youth program.

Benson suited up two dozen players for most of its games last year, including a girl who is on the roster again this year as a receiver. The team expects to add an exchange student from Germany when daily doubles begin Aug. 14

They're coming off what could easily be considered a highly successful season - winning three games.

Senior Tyler Phillips, the team's returning quarterback, said the football team is a significant element to his high school experience, especially since he's been involved in athletics since age 3.

"Sports has been such a huge part of my life, it would be a tremendous letdown if it were taken away," said Phillips, who also plays baseball. "Sports teaches you discipline, respect, so many other things. If helps you sort out your time, like for training, like you would for studying for a class.

"I hope we can have a great season, a great experience and get people excited so there's a team for the freshmen and sophomores to play on next year."

Sly-Clay said he anticipates around two dozen players again to be part of the program in two weeks, and is hopeful a letter being sent out to incoming freshmen might bring in enough players for a freshman team. Benson is in a unique situation in that there is such a demand to attend the school that most students are selected through a lottery system. Having a youth program that got a student into the school through athletics could easily be seen as recruiting.

"Benson is a great school, but it's got more than a few things working against it in terms of athletics," he said. "It would be great if there was some way we could get student-athletes here without it being looked at as recruiting."

BENSON SCHEDULE

Sept. 1     Milwaukie (5A)

Sept. 8     Parkrose (5A)

Sept. 15   At Woodburn (5A - independent)

Sept. 22   Fort Vancouver, Wash., 5:30 p.m. Homecoming

Sept. 29   Rainier (3A)

Oct. 6       Heritage, Wash.

Oct. 12     Glencoe (Independent)

Oct. 20     At The Dalles (5A - Independent)

Oct. 27     At Kings Way Christian, Wash.

 

Jefferson turns a corner toward Eugene

Aaron Gipson gets his first taste of leadership on a sideline
August 28, 2012 / By Cliff Pfenning, oregonsports.com

It's Thursday afternoon, just eight days before the start of the high school football season, and the Jefferson Democrats are going through a series of scrimmages.

Offense vs. Defense, with pride on the line for progress or lack of it.

The Demos suit up a full line-up on offense and defense, but there's only three extra players on the sideline.

The roster for one of the storied programs in Portland is thin. And, coach Aaron Gipson, the school's first-year coach, is nowhere to be found; lost in the paperwork that involves coaches at the high school level.

When he emerges from the school's locker room, he sits far away from the practice, observing. Almost hiding.

Only a few moments go by, though, before the Police Activities League team of seventh and eighth graders arrive wearing uniforms with JEFFERSON on the front arrive. Gipson moves to show them around and then walks with them to the practice field located behind the school to secure gear.

Gipson, a decorated cornerback at the University of Oregon from 2002-05, has thrown himself into the project of not only leading the school's varsity team, but building a program to support it.

"It feels like home for me," he says. "The energy here is infectious. I can tell how much the kids are yearning for a leader; to be pushed, to be guided.
"I want to be a part of that."

At 28, Gipson is among the youngest high school head coaches in the state. He is taking over a program in transition at a school in an equal amount of transition. And, he's developing a unique style that seems focused on mentoring as much as coaching as a school that could easily play at the Class 4A level.
With his first season as a coach at any level looming, Gipson says he'll judge the season on the results he sees within his players, not by numbers on a scoreboard.

"I don't look at any pressure," he says. "When you put pressure on yourself, then it's all about winning, then that's what you're about.
"I'm focused on the kids and the journey with the community."


PROGRAM TRANSITION

Gipson became Jefferson's coach in late spring, after the school's athletic director, Mitch Whitehurst, opted not to renew coach Anthony Stoudamire's contract after six years as head coach. A short time later, the school district removed Whitehurst as athletic director. Stoudamire flirted with legal action against the district, but was then hired to coach at Benson, which has won just three games combined the past two seasons. The Benson job went unfilled for six months.

Stoudamire had plenty of reason to be offended when he was removed as Jefferson's coach. Not only had he built a successful program, which won four Portland Interscholastic League titles in six seasons, but he had supported the Police Activities League program that extended to the third/fourth-grade level. He had donated many thousands of dollars from his pocket, too.

Under Stoudamire, the Democrats won at least one playoff game in five seasons, and reached the Class 5A state final in 2009. Only Wilson, with a first-round win in 2003, has a playoff victory from among the current Class 5A schools in the past decade.

Most of Stoudamire's staff moved with him to Benson.

The football opening came at a unique time for Jefferson, which was on the verge of being closed due to low numbers and simple lack of direction just a couple years ago. With a direction needed, the district retooled the school to fit into the program at neighboring Portland Community College. Students can earn an Associates Degree while attending Jefferson. The district quietly appointed vice principal Margaret Calvert, who had been the girls basketball coach at Grant, as Jefferson's principal last year, and Grant's athletic director Jacque Sage moved to Jefferson to replace Whitehurst. With the football coaching vacancy offering a chance to promote the school's new vibrant outlook through one simple hire, it chose Gipson.

"He has a lot of connections to the football community," Sage says. "He has a lot of experience at the college level helping students achieve their athletic and educational pursuits."

Gipson says he wasn't interested in being a head coach until players he had been mentoring for much of the past year, recruited him to apply. He got involved with some students following a shooting following a sporting event, and several turned out to be athletes. After a short while, he applied.

"I believe the best jobs are the ones that come to you," he says, adding he had gotten to know school administrator Donald Dixon at the same time. "I wasn't looking to be a head coach, but the kids lost their coach and then the calls started coming."

Gipson has a solid background in the game. He grew up in Southern California and was skilled enough to earn a scholarship to Oregon in the post-Joey Harrington era. Not only did he arrive on campus, he earned a starting job as a freshman at cornerback in 2002. In 2005, he led the nation in interceptions, which helped the Ducks advance to the Holiday Bowl - the team's third bowl game in his four years there.

Since graduating with a degree in sociology in 2006, he has bounced around with various jobs, including work in insurance, modeling and as a color commentator for high school football radio broadcasts the past two years. Today he works as a model through a talent agency as well as speed and agility coach through the Metro Baseball Academy. He lives in North Portland, is single with a daughter who will soon turn two, and continues to mentor young men in the community. And, he has a unique taste in music.

"I may be the only black man in America who likes country music," he says. "Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, I love 'em."

Beyond his lack of coaching experience, Gipson's hire seemed questionable because of his lack of connection within the community, which he has noted.

"As I've gone around the community, I have heard things like 'if you didn't grow up here, you can't coach here'," he says. "But, it's football. It's Xs and Os. The people I have on board, the organizations they've been part of, you see how they can put things together at the highest level. I just try and make it the best atmosphere possible."

Gipson's hire is the kind of dramatic move school officials, even the district, might have felt it needed to promote its new direction to the students it wants to reach.

"He's built a lot of relationships in the athletic community - people know him," Sage says. "There's still some pieces to iron out organizationally, but he has a great coaching staff.
"Everyone has to start somewhere."


A COACHING STYLE

When Gipson got hired, he immediately looked at his network of friends and got assistants with connections to Oregon within days. Former Ducks Rashad Bauman and Rasuli Webster jumped on board as did Alundis Brice, a National Football League veteran who Gipson had met at a golf tournament. John Neal, a longtime defensive guru who coached the secondary at Oregon, has been helpful as well.

A staff with name assistants has impressed the school and football players equally.

"His assistants, they've got rings," says senior Isaac Bell, who's father Aaron, is one of Benson's High's storied alums in basketball. "They've got rings as big and my knuckle."

What he lacks in coaching background, he makes up for with the infectious attitude of a mentor, someone who can turn a failure into a challenge and opportunity for success.
When he brought his team together for the first time in summer, he had the players walk around the school and pick up garbage.

On Friday, Gipson had his team watch the movie "Rudy."

Gipson says he's committed to being coach at the school for at least three years.

Whatever failures might happen on the field this fall - they'll only be the first chapter in a three-year building process, which gives him plenty of time to create success.

Shortly after being hired, Gipson was a guest via phone on the daily radio program hosted by The Oregonian's John Canzano, who lauded him for his ability to respond to challenges such as his role in the Oregon defense. After starting as a freshman, Gipson's role diminished to that of a rover on passing downs before he rallied back to a starting position as a senior.

Gipson's coaching style seems highly connected to his background as a mentor. He rarely barks out comments and has delegated most of the actual position coaching to assistants. His specific role is focused on speed, agility and cardiovascular training.

The lack of flash on the field will extend to the game plan, he says, with the team's offense consisting of a small number of basic plays meant to highlight the opportunity for success.

On the field, he does not stand out as the head coach.

The Jefferson players admire his low-key style.

"On the field, he'll get in your face," says Deven Jackson, a senior quarterback. "But, off the field, he's a cool guy. He loves to joke around."

"It's nice that he's younger," says senior Jamartae Brown. "He can demonstrate things he wants to show you, so you know how it's supposed to go."

Gipson seems prepared to take the season's challenges with the long-term understanding that the success of the program won't be based on numbers on a scoreboard, but numbers on the field in terms of players. Jefferson's academic retooling has it primed to essentially function as a private school within a primarily low-income area. Jefferson's football program is one of the top marketing tools the school has to attract students, who will then be guided into the college prep program.

Gipson will have the entire school year to work his way farther into the community to reach and recruit students to the school and build the football program. With a continued presence in the PAL program, some high-profile, Oregon-connected football camps and a bit of marketing support from the school administration within surrounding elementary schools, it's easy to see Gipson as the person to build a program and prove himself a savvy hire.

Of course, the future savviness involves followthrough on a number of fronts, and Gipson already has a lot of fronts without the football team.

"He's very busy," Sage says. "He has a lot of things going on."

In addition to his role as a model often for catalog work, athletic trainer and mentor, he is a frequent guest on radio programs, a schedule that gets worked into the Demos system. On Friday, Jefferson's practice ended at 2 p.m., at which point Gipson called in to be a guest on a radio talk show hosted by former Duck Josh Wilcox. Gipson's assistants are frequently absent due to their commitments, and he missed the mandatory league coaches meeting.

Gipson is tackling these challenges and others involved with being a first-year head coach by focusing on the optimism and adventure that lies ahead. All coaches have jobs and commitments that have to be worked into their schedules, and having a full schedule is a good way to promote personal success to the student athletes in your charge.

He says he comfortable starting his coaching career as a head coach, too.

"I'm ready to be a head coach," he says. "I'm learning the finer things of administration, which is different, and challenging. But we've got a great AD here I can feel it's the start of a phenomenal relationship."


THE YEAR BEGINS

The challenges that go along with building a program, from finding assistant coaches, recruiting players and community members, scouting opponents, promoting the program throughout practices with a catchy slogan emblazoned onto shirts, even videotaping practices; Gipson is going through it all as the leader for the first time, which puts the Democrats at a competitive disadvantage before the season begins.

But, that's not true for every program with a first-year coach. It's not true at Woodburn.

When Jefferson plays host to Woodburn on Friday, it'll be a match-up of first-year head coaches. As it turns out, they're former teammates, too.

Nick Federico, who played at Oregon alongside Gipson, took over the Woodburn program in spring after seven seasons as an assistant at Cascade, a position he delved into directly after leaving Oregon. Federico is taking over a program at a school where his mother, Geri, is principal, which boosts his community connections. And, Woodburn begins the season with a solid chance of reaching the state playoffs because it plays in the Mid-Willamette Conference, which had six of the top 15 teams in the final regular season Class 5A state rankings last year.

Woodburn finished at No. 15 before losing a play-in round game at No. 5 Bend, 33-23. Jefferson, the PIL champion, finished at No. 21, and beat No. 27 Parkrose in its play-in round game. The Demos then lost 54-0 at Mountain View, which later won the state title.

Because the other five PIL teams won just one non-conference game, the entire league suffered and those five schools: Benson, Cleveland, Franklin, Madison and Wilson, finished in the bottom five spots among the 37 Class 5A schools. The top teams in the state now don't even want to schedule teams from the PIL, which is disastrous for the league because the state's rankings system puts such a high value on games between quality opponents, whether they're league or non-league games or even wins or losses. Losing to a highly-ranked team has more value than beating a team buried deep in the rankings, and the play-in round of the state playoff system got refined this year to include only the top 24 teams, not the top 32.

It's very likely that only the PIL champion will finish in the top 24 and participate in the play-in round.

Woodburn, which won the boys soccer state title last year, has a community that is hungry to win and be competitive for a playoff victory, which would be the school's first in its history.

Jefferson's community has expected wins in the past, but it's community impact is negligible. The neighborhood is far more attached to the boys basketball program, which this summer saw graduates Terrence Jones and Terrence Ross selected in the first round of the NBA Draft.  

Even with a flashy new head coach, Jefferson's football team is likely to have a smaller crowd supporting it than Woodburn on Friday.

The game, though, will open the window of opportunity Gipson and his assistants have available to attract attention and build a community. But it might only be open for a short while - perhaps one game, especially if the on-field results are significantly lopsided, which is not uncommon in the PIL.

Last season, Benson fielded an inexperienced line-up and gave up 60 points or more in all five of its non-league games. Jefferson has a line-up that appears equally inexperienced, with sophomores as candidates to start at several positions.

With one or two blowout losses, Gipson could very easily be viewed as a coach hired because of his name and connections rather than proven ability - perhaps even by his own players.
It's all part of the drama that makes him perhaps the most interesting story within high school football this season.  

Gipson says he's ready for the challenges of the season and will tackle them in a manner that will promote the school's best qualities.

"If we end up 0-9, but the kids are showing up on time, they're getting 3.0 grades instead of 1.9 and they're being good citizens in the community, then I will have no qualms about the season," he says. "It's all about these men being better people, better young men.
"Wins and losses don't tell you anything about someone's character. Winning is just a part of the process."

 

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