2016 Undefeated State Champions…..Vinnie, This One’s For You!!

Yesterday, November 25th, 2016, the Roncalli Football program did something very special. We finished the 2016 season as the 15 – 0 Undefeated 4A State Champions! I have been truly blessed in my years as the Head Football Coach at Roncalli to be a part of seven State Championship Teams. To win a state title in any sport at any level is certainly an awesome accomplishment, but to finish the season with an undefeated record is very rare indeed! This 2016 season is the third time in my career that we have accomplished this feat, with the others being in 1993 and 1999. Every Championship season is special and unique in it’s own way, but this group of players will forever be remembered as the team who continued, week by week, to stare adversity in the face, refused to quit or back down, and always showed an unbelievable resolve and will to win against what at times seemed to be insurmountable odds. The adversity began as we faced an extremely challenging regular season. Seven out of our nine regular season opponents were ranked in the “Top 50” teams in the state, including all classes, in the state of Indiana. Victory in four of these games was decided in the last 30 seconds of the game! In our opener against Southport, our Quarterback, Derek O’Connor, scrambled for several seconds before hitting receiver Nick Fischer down field for an 80 yard touchdown pass in the last 30 seconds of the game as we came from behind to win 25 – 21. Two weeks later, we had a goal line stand against Chatard and their vaunted power running game, as we kept them out of the end zone for four consecutive plays inside our five yard line in the last minute of the game to win 21 -14. The following week against Plainfield, we again had a goal line stop from the one yard line as the last seconds ticked off the clock to preserve a 7 – 0 win. In our last regular season game against Guerin Catholic, we secured the Circle City Conference Title and finished the regular season undefeated by securing a 28 -21 victory, as we went for it on fourth and one from our own 11 yard line in the last minute of the game to maintain possession of the ball to win the game. During the playoffs, in the second round of sectional play, we were down 9 points with four minutes left in the game and the ball deep in our own territory. We hit a couple big passes and scored to pull within two points, then got a huge defensive stop with a minute and a half to go in the game. We systematically moved the ball down inside the five yard line, then Placekicker Patrick Sandler kicked the winning field goal as the final second ticked off the clock to secure a 34 – 33 victory. Three weeks later in the Semi-State game as we were playing against a very good East Central team on their home field, the score was tied 21 – 21 with six minutes to go in the game as we gained possession of the ball on our own 20 yard line. Once again we systematically marched the ball down inside their 15 yard line and used our last timeout to stop the clock with 1.9 seconds to go in the game. East Central still had all three of their timeouts left, and they used each of them to “Ice” our kicker, but once again Patrick proved he has ice in his veins as he stepped up and kicked the game winning FG as time expired to send us to Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, to play for the state championship title. Beyond question, this team proved time and again that they had unbelievable resolve, grit, courage, and a relentless will to win in spite of what at times seemed to be overwhelming odds.

Yesterday, in our 4A State Championship game, we faced an excellent opponent in an undefeated and #2 ranked Northwood team. They came in with an explosive offense, averaging 45 points per game, as their defense allowed 18 points per game through fourteen opponents. This was a classic battle of two undefeated opponents, where each group of kids played their hearts out trying to secure a state title for their families, school and community. Each school represented themselves and their programs well, but in the end, our Roncalli Rebels prevailed 34 – 22. All three phases of the game clicked as our special teams gave us an advantage on field position throughout the game, and our defense held them to 271 yards, almost half the 489 average they brought into the game. Likewise, the 22 points we allowed was less than half the 45 they had been averaging. Finally, our offense was clicking on all cylinders as we had 417 total yards and nearly doubled their time of possession. Quarterback Derek O’Connor had a “career day” as he had 154 yards rushing, scored three touchdowns, and passed for 159 yards and another score. This was truly a team victory, and  this group of kids earned every bit of the honor that comes from being an Undefeated State Championship Team!! I told them after the game that I love them, and that I am so proud of all they have accomplished this season…yet those words are an understatement, there is no way with my limited vocabulary that I can adequately state how I truly feel about them, or how proud they have made our community and the the countless people who love and admire them. This was undoubtedly a very unique group of young men, and ultimately a once-in-a-career kind of team.

At the core of what made the team chemistry and camaraderie of this group so strong was one of our assistant coaches, Vince Guerrini. “Vinny”, as he was known by family members and close friends, had played at Roncalli as a defensive back during the mid 1970’s. Although he stood about 5’7″, he was muscular and fast and always played with a “chip on his shoulder”, and was never going to back down from a challenge. Even as an adult, Coach Guerrini was always quick to tell you exactly what he thought, and with his many years of experience and wisdom, he almost always proved to be right. I always admired and appreciated his wisdom and candor, and his uncommon sense of humor and wit.

Vince first noticed a spot on his head in 2011, and doctor’s removed the melanoma. For five years he tested cancer-free, but this past summer began noticing blood in his urine. As the doctors ran tests, they found tumors throughout his torso and his brain. Heading into the season, he attended practice each day and continued to teach his industrial arts classes at school. As we hit the midway point of the season, Vince had noticeably lost weight, and was struggling to make it through an entire day of teaching and coaching, yet he continued to fight it out each day because he loved Roncalli High School, Roncalli football, and most of all his “boys” on the team. As we got to the second half of the season, and cancer continued to pare away at his body, he began coming to school half-days, and began missing practice a little more frequently as his energy levels dictated he get home to get much needed rest.  As we finished the regular season undefeated, Vince was beaming with pride, he was so proud of the fight and determination this team had shown in so many games. More than he could have ever realized, our team was simply emulating the courage, toughness, determination, and grit that he was demonstrating each day in his struggle to cling to life. As we headed into the playoffs, he was no longer able to come to school, or attend practice because of weight loss and exhaustion. Yet he continued to say, “You tell those boys that I’m going to be there to see them win that state championship game.” On Friday, November 11th about two hours before we played Delta in our Regional Championship game, Vince died in his home, leaving behind his wife, Cindy, his three daughters and his beloved grandchildren.

Although Vince was not physically present for our last three games of this season, his presence was certainly felt by all who knew and loved him! During our State Championship win yesterday, I have zero doubt that Vince was inside that stadium, watching his players and his beloved Roncalli Rebels “win that state championship game.” No doubt he had that huge grin on his face, and his heart was filled with pride as “his boys” played once again in a way to make him proud! I certainly felt his presence in the stadium throughout the game as well.

Finally, as over 1,000 people from our community gathered in our gym after the game to welcome and congratulate their new state champions, I called Cindy Guerrini, Vince’s wife, up on the stage to join our players and coaches. I explained that Vince had been an awesome example to us all of what it means to live our lives as champions, in all aspects of our lives, and that he had been such an unbelievable source of inspiration to our football program. I told her that on behalf of the coaches and players, I wanted to present a State Championship Medal to Vince, through her. I then removed the state medallion from around my neck, and put it around hers and gave her a big, heart felt hug. I was very proud to be a part of this medal presentation to Vince!

Thank you, Vinny, for sharing your life with us during your time at Roncalli. All of us, players and coaches alike, are better men because of the influence you had on our lives! Having you there with us throughout this amazing season got us through some very difficult times……we did it, Buddy, we did it!       God bless you Vince, and God bless the Roncalli Rebels!!

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