Story by Eli Ruiz
For the second straight year, the Sullivan County Democrat has named Liberty football coach, John Wilhelm as its Coach of the Year this time sharing the recognition with Sullivan West coach Ron Bauer.
In just four seasons as head coach of Liberty, Wilhelm and his staff have fostered a winning culture at the school. Taking over in 2009 after a miserable 2-7 2008 season, Wilhelm wasted no time in turning around the Indian’s football fortunes going 5-5 after a 1-4 start. Liberty reached the Section IX Class C finals that year where they lost to Ellenville. In 2010 Wilhelm led the Indians to a 6-3 record and a second straight appearance in the Section IX Class C playoffs.
Liberty missed last year’s playoffs with a 5-4 record after failing on a two-point conversion in an all-or-nothing game against Sullivan West. Wilhelm called for the two-point try and the win in overtime rather than kick the extra point and send the game into a second overtime. It was that type of gutsy call that helped earn Wilhelm the 2011 Sullivan County Democrat Coach of the Year.
This season coach Wilhelm’s goals for his young team were no different.
“We want to get back into the playoffs and advance in the state tournament,” Wilhelm said in an early season interview. The Indians lost 18 seniors to graduation from 2011 and as Wilhelm put it, “we only started two kids on defense that started the previous season and three kids on offense.”
With a young and inexperienced team and a lot of players in unfamiliar positions Liberty struggled to a 1-2 start, and it looked to be a long rebuilding year for the Indians.
“I really don’t like that term rebuilding year,” said Wilhelm. “Sure we had a young team coming in this season but our goals never changed. Every year coming in we’d like to make the playoffs.”
After week three, Wilhelm and his staff made some risky moves to the roster.
“We moved our starting center Ryan Boxberger over to tackle and we put a junior with no experience at center, Kevin Brannigan, and made him our center,” said Wilhelm. “Brannigan actually played tight-end on the JV last season but with Ryan Henry back he [Brannigan] knew he wouldn’t be seeing much action there, and frankly, he did a fine job at center,” explained Wilhelm.
The Indians would go on to reel off six consecutive wins and secure a spot in the playoffs despite losing arguably their best offensive weapon in running back Kenny Jaycox in week five to a knee injury.
“Losing Kenny was huge, but we gave Ryan [stepson and Democrat Player of the Year Ryan Henry] a shot in the backfield and he did a great job,” said Wilhelm. A great job indeed, as Henry would rack up some incredible offensive numbers.
While Wilhelm handles the offense and most of the play calling, he can’t say enough about his assistants, giving them much of the credit for his teams’ success.
“We have such a great assistant coaching staff with Ryan Baldock handling the defense,” said Wilhelm. “I really can’t say enough about Ryan and what he does for this program.
“Then there’s Adam Lake who handles the special teams. As a staff, I think we all work very well together. I think that helps our kids a lot.”
Speaking of special teams, that’s another area where Wilhelm rolls the dice, though he says it’s a calculated strategy. The Indians go for onside kicks on every kickoff. Wilhelm says too many high school teams get burned on kickoffs putting the ball in the other team’s best player’s hands in the open field. He’d rather give the ball to the opposing team on their 40-yard line in a worst-case scenario or have a chance to recover the kick and take possession.
Wilhelm says any recognition he receives is all because of the kids.
“I have to give it to these kids because they work so hard in the off-season,” said Wilhelm. “They’ve just really bought into what we’re doing, whether it be the weight room or on the field.”
Asked what his most memorable game of the 2012 season was, Wilhelm said, “Really there are two games that stand out in my mind, the Burke game and the semi-final game against Millbrook.
“I think the Millbrook game was our signature game this season. We were picked to lose, but we went in with a game plan and we executed it on both offense and defense. That has to be the one game that really stands out for me.”
Wilhelm has certainly made an impression on Millbrook coach Sean Keenan.
“He has done a great job of turning things around fast in Liberty,” said Keenan. “If I had a child who was playing age, I'd love to have him play under coach Wilhelm. He’s just a heck of a guy and coach.”
As for this season’s toughest opponent, James I. O’Neill, Wilhelm says, “We had a game plan [against them in the Section IX Class C championship game] and for most all of three quarters we hung in there with them, but they had a very deep and talented squad and they eventually just wore us down.
“I don’t fault our kids at all because as any one who was there could see, they played their hearts out. We just got beat by a better team that day.”
Said O'Neill coach Anthony Finochio of Wilhelm, "He's quickly built some program out there. He's got some real talent and finds the best ways to utilize those talents. I think he's one of the better coaches in the entire section."
Regarding his Democrat co-Coach of the Year Ron Bauer of Sullivan West, Wilhelm says, "He [Bauer] has had a long and great coaching career with a lot of success at Sullivan West and before that at Delaware Valley.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for him for being around the game for such a long time. I think that kind of longevity is very special because it takes a lot of time and effort to coach football and for him to stick around and do it for so long is a testament to him and his love of the game."
Next season Wilhelm has his talented double-threat quarterback Quinn Jackson returning along with lineman Julius Graves, DB Damien Travis, DB Brenden Williams, defensive starter Jericho Male. Wilhelm is also excited to see how freshman two-way starter Kevin Morgans does next season. “We brought him up this season as a freshman to play offensive guard and he turned out to be so strong and quick he started on both sides of the ball,” said Wilhelm.
Wilhelm, who also teaches physical education, doubles as the athletic director at Liberty and coaches baseball as well.
He has brought a winning and competitive culture back to Liberty, witnessed by the nearly full stands at every home game and the large contingent of fans that followed the Indians to Kingston’s Dietz Stadium to watch their improbable playoff run.