During a conversation a year ago, Pusch Ridge Christian football coach Jerry Harris presented quite the dichotomy.
“I’m a prideful, sinful guy, and I want to win at everything. I want to beat you at checkers,” he said, before adding, “But this is about building young men into godly men.”
So what a coincidence it is that just a few weeks ago, Harris was asked to speak at the school’s weekly chapel for homecoming week.
Pusch Ridge athletic coordinator Lonnie Tvrdy asked him to deliver a simple message on a relevant topic.
Christianity and competition. Faith and football. God, it seems, and the gridiron.
Where do they collide?
In the end zone, apparently.
Two years removed from their first state championship in 14 years of existence as a varsity program, the Lions are again roaring.
Roaring? Actual lions are less menacing. They just tear out an aorta or two. These Lions demoralize the soul.
The last two weeks, Pusch Ridge has defeated Tanque Verde and Catalina by a combined score of 123-0. They had a scare in Week 5, a 22-20 win over Catalina Foothills. That’s like a hyena getting a good lick in.
Since then, the Lions have outscored opponents 223-21. They’ll travel to Santa Rita on Friday with a chance to finish the regular season 10-0.
When you’re pummeling teams like this, is it possible to remain devout? Doesn’t the ego intercede? When Hail Marys and Hail Marys meet, which wins out?
At that chapel, Harris — who works off-site for Southwest Energy and is not a teacher — challenged the sixth- through 12th-graders in attendance.
“How many of you want to win?” he asked. “How many of you love to win? More importantly, how many of you hate to lose? Do you love to win more than you hate to lose? I hate to lose more than I love to win. I win, that euphoria is great and lasts for 30 minutes. When I lose, and this is my sinful nature, that hangs with me for days.”
This is not a common topic at many high schools. Poll your average high school coach, and he’ll hype up humility and character, but given the chance, he’ll take a state title over eternal peace. What’s eternal peace without a ring on your finger? Those things shine.
Harris dove in deep.
“I thought it would center around athletics, but there is competition in so many things. Speech and debate, your mathletes, science contests – there’s a winner and a loser, a first or second or third place,” he said. “Fine arts; are you getting the lead role or a supporting role? Chorus competitions. Other parts of life – card games, board games, competition in every aspect of our lives.”
“Is wanting to win OK in a Christian context?” he said. “We put a large premium, almost a point of emphasis, on humility. On the football field, hopefully that translates to being the nicest guy who has ever knocked the snot out of your nose.”
The aching desire to win never goes away. Just ask Andy Fetsis.
The Lions offensive line coach, a player on Jeff Scurran’s 1990 Sabino state title winner, laughed as he recalled one of the team’s annual training camp stays in Prescott. They go every year for team building, for standard setting, and for two-a-days.
And yet every year, after two grueling practices in sweltering heat, somehow the kids always find a way to compete. Usually it’s on the volleyball court, where the matches are legendary.
“It was almost curfew, and we’re saying, ‘Do we really want to get our shoes on?’” Fetsis said. “They were over their talking their trash, and it was like, ‘We gotta get our shoes on, man.”
“There’s no way we’re going to let these kids beat us,” Harris added.
Not only are the coaches active participants on the volleyball court, but often on the football field. The Lions regularly do not field enough players to complete an 11-on-11 drill. On Wednesday night, as the team prepared for Friday’s matchup against Santa Rita, four coaches put on skull caps and played linebacker.
For Fetsis, whose son, Christian, is the team’s starting quarterback, it’s all about competition, until it isn’t.
“How can we, as God says, love your enemy?” Fetsis said. “That always piqued my interest. I said if I’m going to be a representative of my God, how do we coach these kids to play hard, be humble and love the guys across from them when most coaches are telling them to gouge their eyes and break their legs?”
Ask any high school football coach — heck, any college or pro coach, too — and he’ll tell you that the single most frustrating aspect of coaching is when players practice and play to their opponents’ level.
They call it a down week, and that’s because that’s how it leaves a coach, down, defeated and, more than anything, annoyed.
The Lions, as such, teach their kids “that the competition is not with their opponents, that the competition is with themselves,” as Fetsis says.
Take the last two weeks.
Against two programs that are just trying to get by, the Lions set nearly unattainable goals for themselves: allow less than 25 yards of total offense and score on every possession.
Those standards are impossible, unless you practice for them.
“The battle is with our own mind,” Harris said. “The battle is can we have the best week of practice all year long — and by the way, we did — ahead of playing Catalina, who we know we should destroy? Can we trust each other, love each other enough to put our team ahead of ourselves because we want to play on Nov. 25? Can we be that disciplined?”
Last season, a down year for the program at 7-4, the Lions were sidelined far before.
“Coming into last year, we had such high expectations,” Christian Fetsis said. “We thought we had a loaded team. I think the reason we lost is we put the confidence in ourselves. We lost focus on who we were really playing for. That was our main focus this year, to play with class.”
This year, Pusch Ridge has its eyes set on a state title. Anything less will be disappointment.
Except for Harris.
He doesn’t just judge himself, or his program, on wins or championships.
“The world is going to judge us based on our won-loss record, but any high school coach will tell you, I’m not going to know how I did — if the blood and sweat and tears I put in — I won’t know if it made a difference for five or 10 years,” Harris said. “When they’ve become husbands and men and fathers and leaders in the community and church.
“That’s when I’m gonna know. That’s when I’ll know if it’s been worth it.”