Coaches relate to 'slow-cook’ growth

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
First-year Southridge coach Scott Buening, who fired up the Raiders before the sectional game against North Posey, arrived in Huntingburg this season after helping rebuild the program at Jennings County. The Raiders are bound for Friday’s 7:30 p.m. Class 2A regional matchup at Paoli, which is coached by 1988 Southridge graduate Brian Balsmeyer, who has helped revive the Rams’ chronincally struggling program into a consistent winner.

Herald Sports Editor

Southridge football coach Scott Buening can appreciate the slow cookin’ that Brian Balsmeyer has completed at Paoli. That’s Buening’s term for it, because as he knows as well as anyone, resuscitating a football program in tatters can’t be accomplished by the flash-steaming process.

It’s got to be placed on minimal heat. Simmered low and slow until the essence of the old regime has evaporated and the new system is cooked to tender perfection. Both coaches in Friday’s 7:30 p.m. Class 2A regional collision between Southridge (10-2) and Paoli (10-2) have managed the culinary feat before — Buening when he spent four seasons trying to revive Jennings County before arriving at Southridge this fall, and Balsmeyer with his reclamation project of a Paoli program that flailed in the abyss of prep football programs prior to his arrival.

A 1988 Southridge High School graduate who served as defensive coordinator at Jasper for eight seasons before taking the Paoli job in 2006, Balsmeyer had known only a culture of success. And as he and Buening both indicated, that’s the star ingredient in slow cookin’: rehauling a culture, not just installing new weightlifting plans or offensive schemes.

“When I took the (Paoli) job the first summer, I still had kids involved in the sports programs down in the Ireland area. (People) would ask, ”˜What’s the difference between a Jasper kid and a Paoli kid?’ I said, ”˜A Jasper kid believes, and a Paoli kid hoped to,’” Balsmeyer said. “We got them to start to believe.”

Step 1 in the slow cookin’: Allowing the chef time to operate.

Buening won 12 games in a four-year stay at Jennings County, but the progress resonated since the Panthers were 4-38 in the four seasons prior to the arrival of Buening, who earned a two-year contract extension after the 2012 season.

Things at Paoli were just as downtrodden. Balsmeyer showed up to a program that had lost 34 of its prior 36 games.

“First season, we went 0-10. And then I got a contract extension. That’s how bad it was,” Balsmeyer said.

Step 2: the purge.

Balsmeyer and Buening scoured out much of the previous program’s structure, from the major details to the minor.

For Buening, it was something of a commercial for a department store closeout sale. Everything. Must Go.

“We literally changed everything. We wanted no, zero connection to anything in the past: jerseys, practice routines, I mean everything,” Buening said. “We changed our helmet color, our facemask color, we changed our decal. Kids, they start to connect those kind of things.”

At Paoli, Balsmeyer’s work began in the program’s initial rungs, where youth coaches were simply trying to maximize wins via their own systems and methods. Balsmeyer integrated structure and order. He compared the setup of the Rams’ third- and fourth-grade system to that of a parochial school: the three teams Paoli has are like their own separate parishes, each developing multiple quarterbacks and running backs and a passel of linemen.

“Our kids from third grade on are running option football and playing a 3-4 defense. I often say that we’re going to run a football program — a quality football program — we’re not going to run an intramural program,” said Balsmeyer, who’s guided Paoli to six straight seasons with nine or more wins.

Balsmeyer also spent time canvassing the halls at school to scope out potential players and build numbers, though there was a considerable gulf between the introductory stages to Step 3: Belief.

Balsmeyer, for one, had it.

“I thought we’d win the first year. That was my ego. I got a reality check,” said Balsmeyer, who also boosted his team’s nonconference schedule by playing Evansville schools North and Central. “But we kept hammering along and got things the way we wanted them.”

Through it all, Balsmeyer and Buening even built a camaraderie through the congruence of their coaching challenges.

They were acquaintances during Balsmeyer’s days at Jasper, then had their Jennings County and Paoli middle school teams scrimmage against each other one year as they also joined their programs in the same camps and offseason workouts together.

There’s a personality element to all of it, too, as Buening noted the players need some sort of rationale for why the heck they’re waking up with the sun for sweaty summer workouts.

“Really, you have to sell yourself. If they believe you care about them, if you bring passion and enthusiasm and they know you’re working like crazy to help them reach their goals, when you do those things, you get them to buy in,” Buening said. “And you’ve got to do things early, because the guys who don’t buy in, you’ve got to get rid of them. ... And then those who are working hard get rewarded, and they start to see success.”

Even when they’re winning, Buening noted, they have to be convinced they belong. When his players at Jennings County started getting involved in tight games or gripping a lead in the contest’s final stages, trepidation still loitered.

“The kids sit there and they’re waiting for something bad to happen. It’s like, ”˜Oh man, here we are and it’s tight and it’s close, what’s going to go wrong?’ Once you take a little step in regard to that success, you take another step,” Buening said. “It’s slow-cookin’ the thing, and taking those little baby steps and working up to where Paoli is now.”

Buening remembers when it happened for his buddy Balsmeyer and the Rams. In 2007, they grazed North Harrison 14-13 in the fourth game of the season, extinguishing a 17-game losing skid. They followed with four straight wins and then a first-round sectional victory that year. Then a trip to the sectional final in 2008. Then slayings of Brownstown Central and Evansville Mater Dei during a semistate run in 2009.

Balsmeyer installed an attack exotic at the prep level with a mid-line veer option offense — it’s similar to what Army and Navy run, and Raider defensive coordinator Steve Winkler can hardly remember the last time the Raiders have faced such a scheme. Balsmeyer’s son, Brett, has passed for 1,851 yards and 28 touchdowns this season. And all the coaches Buening has chatted up have agreed that 6-foot-5 senior split end Tanner Wroblewski (56 receptions, 1,297 yards, 21 touchdowns) is the best player on their schedule.

One thing’s for sure: Paoli will look nothing like it did in 2004, when Southridge drummed the Rams 57-0 in the last face-off between the teams.

“To be able to do what (Balsmeyer has) done is so difficult to do. And then to do it and sustain it — it’s not as if they had some class come through and they had a good little run and it’s over,” Buening said. “It’s no surprise they are where they are, and obviously it’s going to be a big task for us to go on the road and get these guys beat.”

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