By Rob Potter
CALLICOON On Oct. 6, the Liberty Indians traveled to Lake Huntington to face the Sullivan West Bulldogs in a key Section IX Class C Division I football game in which the winning team would advance to the Class C playoffs and the losing team would be eliminated from postseason play.
It was a very competitive game that was tied 14-14 at the end of regulation. In overtime, Sullivan West scored a touchdown and kicked the extra point to take a 21-14 lead.
Liberty answered with a 19-yard touchdown pass from Marshon Williams to Efrain Baez to pull to within a point at 21-20. With a successful extra-point kick, the Indians could tie the score and force a second overtime.
But Liberty Coach John Wilhelm made the courageous call to go for a two-point conversion, which, if successful, would give his team a 22-21 victory. But the well-conceived two-point conversion pass was dropped and Sullivan West won the game and earned the playoff berth.
Although the two-point try didn’t work out for the Indians, Wilhelm earned the respect and admiration of coaches, players and fans for making the gutsy decision.
Having the courage to go for two in that situation is one of the reasons Wilhelm has been chosen as the Sullivan County Democrat 2011 High School Football Coach of the Year. His Liberty team finished with a 5-4 record, tied for the best among Sullivan County teams and for the third consecutive season, the Indians posted a .500 record or better an achievement no other local school can claim.
“It’s a great honor,” Wilhelm said when he was informed of the accolade. “It is truly an honor to be chosen and recognized for the work that we do.”
Among those who agreed with Wilhelm’s call to go for the two-point conversion and the win was Tri-Valley Coach John Rusin.
“Personally, I thought it was a great call,” Rusin said. “I thought it was great to go for the win in that situation, it was a gutsy call.
“They came up with a well-designed play and had an open receiver,” Rusin added. “I thought about calling up Coach Wilhelm and asking him how he and his assistant coaches came up with that play in case we need a good two-point play in the future.”
Wilhelm’s 2011 team was just a few plays from possibly going undefeated. In addition to the one-point overtime loss to Sullivan West, Liberty lost by one point to eventual Class C Division I champion James. I . O’Neill and two points to Millbrook. And they were tied in the fourth quarter against Chester, the Class D State runner-ups who dominated Sullivan County teams all season.
“We lost by one point to [James I.] O’Neill and by one point in overtime to Sullivan West,” Wilhelm said. “We lost by two points to Millbrook. And in Week 9, we played Chester and the score was tied at 35-35 in the fourth quarter. They scored a couple of late touchdowns to win 48-35, but the game was a lot closer than the final score.”
Last season, the Indians were 6-3 and earned a spot in the Class C semifinals. In 2009, the Indians finished 5-5 and reached the postseason. They defeated Sullivan West in a Class C semifinal before losing to Ellenville in the Class C championship game.
Moments after Liberty’s heartbreaking loss to Sullivan West, Wilhelm said simply, “we went for the win and it didn’t work out.”
And now, several weeks later, Wilhelm said he would “absolutely” have made the call to go for two points again. He also said that he would have made the same decision had the Indians played that game at home rather than at Sullivan West.
The 2011 season marked Wilhelm’s third as the Liberty head coach. He spent the previous eight seasons as one of the Indians’ assistant coaches.
Prior to coming to Liberty, Wilhelm spent two years coaching football at his alma mater, Ellenville Central School. He was a varsity assistant coach for one season and the JV coach for one season.
While attending Ellenville, Wilhelm was a wide receiver and defensive back on the school’s varsity football team for two seasons. The Blue Devils were guided by Coach Tony Borriello, who is still leading the team today and has coached against his former player Wilhelm a couple of times.
Wilhelm also played three years of varsity baseball at Ellenville.
After graduating in 1988, Wilhelm attended Ulster Community College for two years and was the second baseman for the school’s baseball team. He then spent the next two years at SUNY Cortland, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Physical Education.
Wilhelm then earned his master’s in Education at SUNY New Paltz. For the past 15 years, he has been a Physical Education teacher at Liberty Elementary School.
Wilhelm noted that he has received plenty of support from his family during his playing days and now in his coaching days.
“My sister Allison and our parents Joan and John attend all of our games,” he said.
Wilhelm also receives support and encouragement from his wife Cathy, his stepsons Calvin Henry, who is a 19-year-old sophomore at Memphis University, and Ryan Henry, a 16-year-old junior at Liberty, and his father-in-law, Harry Rapenske, a former longtime athletic director and coach at Liberty.
Ryan Henry was a starting tight end and linebacker for the Liberty football team this season. He was also the team’s kicker and punter.
“It was fun, it was exciting,” Wilhelm said of coaching Ryan this autumn. “He had a good year.”
Wilhelm is very proud of Ryan and all of the Liberty players.
“We had a good season,” he said. “I think we had a great group of players and they worked hard all season.
“It’s a little bit disappointing that we didn’t make sectionals,” Wilhelm added. “But we still had a pretty successful season. These guys played hard every game. They tried to reach sectionals, but it just wasn’t meant to be.”
In addition to his family members and the players, Wilhelm is grateful for his assistant coaches.
“I want to thank the coaching staff that I have around me for all that they do,” Wilhelm said.
That staff includes assistant coaches Ryan Baldock, Phil Fanning, Fred Howard, Adam Lake, Jim O’Connor and Matt Stoddard.