Coach of the Year has a nice ring to it. Wilmington High’s football team – PIAA champions – sounds better.
So while personal accolades are nice – who doesn’t enjoy recognition, particularly from one’s peers – Brandon Phillian feels more concern with guiding his Greyhounds gridders. And that’s not only for Friday afternoon’s Class 2A commonwealth clash with Southern Columbia – but also after his Greyhounds graduate. He’ll be the first to remind an observer he was one of those kids not so many years ago.
Wilmington (13-1) will meet Southern Columbia (15-0) for the second straight season, 1 p.m. at Hersheypark Stadium. Last year the Tigers took it to the ‘Hounds (48-0) in the scholastic swan song for coaching legend Terry Verrelli. Soon, Phillian would succeed his mentor at the Hounds’ helm.
This season Phillian has finessed Wilmington to 12 consecutive conquests since a lone loss, in week 2 at Farrell. It’s no small coincidence that undefeated Farrell is preparing to play Lackawanna Trail in Thursday’s Class 1A title tilt.
But Phillian is focused on Southern Columbia, “an extremely talented team,” he began. “Excellent at the skill positions with Julian Fleming (the nation’s top-rated wide receiver, with 3,964 career yards and 53 TDs), and they have another very good receiver in Preston Zachman. They have some talented running backs with the Garcia brothers (Gaige, 5,977 career rushing yards, 101 TDs, and his younger brother, Gavin). And Stone Hollenbach (6,190 yards passing, 77 TD passes) does a great job running that offense.
“It’s a talented group and extremely well coached. Coach (Jim) Roth’s resume (427-63-2, 3rd-most wins in PIAA annals, and 8 commonwealth crowns) speaks for itself. So between the coaching and talent, that’s why they’ve been successful year in and year out,” Phillian assessed.
The 32-year-old Phillian, wise beyond his years, continued,
“I believe, while both teams are different this year, you always learn more after a loss than you do after a win. The game last year, when it was over, was so painful at the time. So the staff watched the film, analyzed it, and we thought – looking back – if we would be fortunate enough to see this team again, there’d be some things we’d do differently. Now,” Phillian cautioned, “some of those don’t apply. But we’ve definitely been able to learn more, and I think we’ll be able to use some of that, moving forward, as we prepare for this game.”
When Wilmington won its state semifinal over another nemesis from the past, Steel Valley (26-6, avenging a 2016 regional finals loss), Phillian related, “Thinking back to last year, after we’d knocked off Washington to advance to Hershey, the sheer joy, exuberance and jubilation I felt ... it was the same thing this year. I don’t know how I can be more excited than what I felt (last week after defeating Steel Valley).
“At the end of the day, whether it was as defensive coordinator (last year) or head coach (this year), last year was last year,” Phillian continued regarding the showdown with Southern Columbia. “I’m doing everything I can – study as hard as I can, prepare as hard as I can – to give our kids the best opportunity to be in the right place, with a great game plan. Maybe it feels a little different (being the head coach), but I’m doing everything I can to have our players prepared to the best of their ability.”
Recently, Phillian – for just one evening – was able to relax with wife Chelsea and daughter Braelyn. He’s always expressed his admiration and affection for Verrelli, who has enjoyed watching Wilmington this season.
It wasn’t so long ago – 2008 – few, if any, gave the Greyhounds any chance for success against Philadelphia’s West Catholic in the PIAA Class AA championship game. But Wilmington won that day, 35-34 in double-OT.
I can still see Verrelli’s very satisfied facial expression when WFMJ/TV 21’s Mike Ackelson asked him afterward, ‘Coach, what would you say to all those people – with the exception of (TV 21) and The Herald – who gave your team no chance of winning?’
Kind’ve uncharacteristically cocking his head, Verrelli, savoring the moment, rhetorically replied, “Is that what they said?”
Fast-forward a decade. Once again, the Greyhounds are, pardon the pun, underdogs.
Considering his role as new Hounds’ headmaster, it won’t necessarily be a victory that validates, Phillian, who related, “For me, the validation doesn’t come from wins and losses. It’s gonna come 10, 15, 20 years down the road when people ask me, ‘Coach, what kind’ve a team do you have this year?’ What makes me feel good is what kind of team we do have – it’s based on the values we hold our team to.
“So the answer to ‘What kind of team we have?’ won’t come until 10, 15, 20 years from now when these boys are grown up young men and husbands and fathers. Our values are based on the kind of life they go on to lead.
“And,” concluded Phillian, serving as spokesman for his staff, “we’ve done a great job developing young men with values, so they’re set up for life after high school football. I certainly feel very validated in what we do on the football field.
“The wins and losses will will take care of themselves. But it’s the process. That’s where the validation comes from.”
ED FARRELL is assistant sports editor for The Herald. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.