When a football game is winding down, teams are faced with tough decisions: Go for it, or punt? Kick the extra point or go for the conversion? Call timeout, or let the clock wind?
Assistant coaches often have input in those situations, but for Cardinal Spellman, it is truly a collective process.
Following a 34-3 loss to Bishop Fenwick on Oct 7, second-year coach Kahn Chace stepped down as the head coach, citing parental harassment. Chace’s longtime assistant, Michael Holland — who called the defense — also departed, leaving four coaches on staff.
In an effort to maintain continuity, athletic director Mike Gerrish named all four of the staff members as co-head coaches. The quartet has worked extremely well together while steering No. 13 Spellman (5-5) to the Division 6 state semifinals, as the Cardinals prepare to face top-seeded Stoneham (9-1) Saturday at Weston High (2:30 p.m.).
“You had 55 kids playing football, and we had to make a decision quickly,” said Gerrish. “We felt the easiest transition would be to keep the four remaining coaches as co-head coaches.”
“Each one of them have leadership qualities that have emerged more as time wore on. It’s been a nice blend. And I give the kids a lot of credit because they really bought in. It happened during the toughest part of our schedule, so it was tough out of the gates, but they made the best out of this situation and we’ve had an outstanding run.”
Ryan Donovan, a physical education/wellness teacher at Spellman, serves as the liaison to the athletic director’s office and calls the offense. Jequan Johnson, 37, coordinates the defense with help from Dan Lewis, 57. Scott Tucker, 57, continues to assist Donovan with the offense.
The 27-year-old Donovan played at Plymouth South and started coaching at UMass Amherst during his sophomore year of college. He went on to work at MacDuffie, Tilton, and Harvard in a scouting and operations capacity. As Spellman’s quarterbacks coach, he already had a strong relationship with senior passer Jack Duffy, who is up to 1,061 passing yards, 973 rushing yards, and 21 total touchdowns this season.
“After Coach Chace resigned, we felt like we couldn’t give up,” said Duffy. “We had to work harder than ever before. I knew as a captain that I needed to bring the team together and let them know the season wasn’t not over. Nothing has come easy for us. We’ve worked really hard to get where we are now.”
Johnson, a 2004 Weymouth graduate who played two seasons at Stony Brook and 10 years of semi-pro ball with the highly-successful Taunton Gladiators, was already heavily involved in defensive game planning. When he became a co-head coach, though, the experienced youth and travel coach started to ramp up the physicality and intensity of practices.
Working with defensive players who are mostly under 5-foot-10-inches and weigh less than 200 pounds, Johnson has instilled toughness across the board, with middle linebacker Jason Kelly (5-foot-7, 135 pounds) exemplifying that trend.
“He’s undersized, but he’s all heart,” Johnson said of Kelly, who was named captain by the interim staff.
“The biggest thing I say to the kids is, ‘You might not be as big, but you’ve got to play with as much heart. You’ve got to take the hit and look them in the eyes and keep coming.’”
Spellman will face a tough challenge Saturday against Stoneham’s elite rushing attack, spearheaded by sizable offensive linemen Sal Asaro (6-3, 230) and Jared Linehan(6-4, 260), with up to five different tailbacks capable of breaking long gains.
Despite a size disadvantage in their two playoff games, the Cardinals outlasted Winthrop, 21-8, and squeaked out a 14-13 win over a Blackstone Valley Tech team that advanced to the state semifinals last year.
Senior captain Luke McSharry (6-foot-4, 175 pounds) is the biggest force on the defensive line, with D’anthony Amado serving as Spellman’s top cornerback. Matt O’Donnell (274 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns) is playing through a broken finger to contribute on defense. Brian Gallagher leads the backfield, and Jay Comeau and Kristian Simpson have been the top target for Duffy, who also kicks extra points.
“We don’t think about our size being a problem,” said McSharry, who has six catches for 121 yards and a touchdown at tight end.
“It’s our mentality that gets us going on defense. We just go out there and try to outwork the other team and we have a lot of fun doing it.”
For Tucker, a 22-year coaching veteran and former fullback at Bentley, working in tandem with three other head coaches has been a unique situation. The Quincy resident admits he was nervous at first, but said he’s been blown away by the impact Johnson and Donovan have made in a short amount of time.
“[Donovan and Johnson] both have bright futures and this is a great opportunity for them,” Tucker said. “I feel like it’s part of my role to help fill some of the gaps in experience, and I’ve been super impressed with their attitude, and their technical knowledge.”
“We’re all in this together, and all in it for the kids. There’s no attitudes, and no negativity. It’s been fun to watch the kids confidence build and we’ve played a part in that. As I told them after the win [over BVT], ‘We’re one heck of a team.’”