When a program is fighting a 17-year streak of losing seasons changing one thing is not going to make a difference. To turn around a program that has struggled for as long as Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton has, change has to come in waves. The most significant change for JWP had nothing to do with offensive or defensive schemes. The most important change was a change in the players’ mentality.
It was a slow build for head coach Joe Joyce, but the young coach felt with a five-win – and first winning season since 1996 – and then four-win season things were moving in the right direction. Then in 2015 – his third year as head coach – all that promise seemed to go away. A 1-8 season might have sent the program back to the struggles of the past, but this program is not the same as the program that had struggled for twenty years. This team did something that just doesn’t happen in football. Like the kids have been saying since late in the 2016 football season – they went from 1-8 to State.
Like most future football players, Joyce started playing the game early.
“I’ve played my whole life. I was the youngest of three brothers. We had it in our blood.”
Joyce grew up in and played high school football for JWP.
“I was an offensive and defensive lineman,” Joyce said. “I was All-Conference, but we were not very good. I had a great experience with it. You learn a lot when you are going out there working hard and working towards goals even when you are not succeeding.”
Joyce knew he wanted to go into teaching and coaching from an early age.
“Ever since seventh-grade teaching was the one thing I always planned on doing,” Joyce said. “My oldest brother was a social studies teacher, and that influenced me to choose social studies. The coaching aspect was a natural progression. I love the sport, and I love to compete.”
Joyce student taught at Waterville-Elysian-Morristown and was a volunteer assistant during their state championship year of 2009.
“I did a lot of listening, a lot of watching and asking questions trying to find my style and learn from Jon Bakken and his staff. I learned how to manage a game and how to set expectations for a program. After that, I was hired at United South Central. I was the JV coach for one year and then was the defensive coordinator for one year under Brad Huse. I learned a lot about the practice aspect of football and how much time to put into it. The next year I was hired at Janesville. I was the JV coach for one year and took over as the head coach the next year.”
The Young Coach Gets a Chance to Turn Around His Alma Mater
When he took over, the program was not struggling as badly as when Joyce was playing, but they still had not had a winning season since 1996.
“Day one and still today my focus was the weight room,” said the JWP alum. “Our weight room program (didn’t have any organization) as far as what to do. There wasn’t a focus on explosive lifts. We set an expectation with the kids that lifting is going to happen. To this day (the coaches) are still in there at six in the morning making sure we are holding kids accountable.”
Joyce immediately started talking to the kids about the benefits of the weight room and why they were doing what they were doing.
“It wasn’t just ‘hey lift,’ it was ‘here are 500 reasons why’. My assistant and I were in there every day working with them,” Joyce told northstarfootballnews. “We wanted the weight room to be a fun atmosphere for the guys. It is tough to get up at six in the morning and work hard.”
Along with the weight room, the program had been losing for so long; Joyce also had to focus on changing the entire culture.
“When you don’t have a winning season in football for almost twenty years you are already starting behind the eight ball,” Joyce said. “We needed to work on the kids’ mindset.”
“To begin with we wanted to stress if you don’t put the time in you are going to be accountable because you won’t play,” Joyce continued. “I think with smaller schools sometimes you could be a pretty good player and not work at it and still. We were trying to get past that mindset and focus on putting the time not just to be okay, but to get to that next level.”
As a young coach Joyce practiced what he preached.
“We put together a high paced practice where we waste very little time. That took some time to get going. After practice, I would stay in the office for six hours working on what would be best for the next day as well as reflecting on what we needed to address and tweak. Luckily we don’t have to spend as much time now because we have a better feel, but that first year I was very stressed because I wanted to make sure we were getting absolutely the most out of our practices.”
The early signs were good for the young coach. The kids had bought into the weight room and were adding twenty or thirty pounds to the major lifts – then the first game happened.
“My first game ever as a head coach,” Joyce recalled, “we played Mountain Lake Area – they were fresh off a section championship. We got beat 73-22.”
Despite the lopsided loss, Joyce saw signs of hope.
“When I knew we were okay was in that game. Even though we were down thirty points we had guys who you could just tell believed. They thought we could win the game. The culture aspect changed. In the offseason and fall camp, we were working together. The second game we won 40-8.”
On top of everything else, during the new coach’s first season the Bulldogs had to deal with a switch in class. They played 9-man during the regular season but were in the Class A playoffs.
“I wouldn’t want to do it again, but it was interesting that is for sure,” Joyce recalled. “We played one way all season and then with four practices we had to get ready to play 11-man. We were installing an entirely new offense and defense, a new numbering system, verbiage, concepts, everything. Once we got to a point where we felt we had a handle on things we started to take fifteen minutes a practice to put in some eleven man plays. We were prepping for 11-man when we had a 9-man game the next day.”
The coaches continued to modify their offensive and defensive schemes.
“We started out as a Wing-T team. We based it off of Waterville-Elysian-Morristown’s offense,” the former Buccaneers’ assistant said. “We have always been a no-huddle team. We don’t go as fast as we can, but we will get up on the line and call our plays. During the first year, we switched to a spread, zone team – running inside zone and outside zone. That has morphed in some H-back, two tight ends out of shotgun. We spread it out to run power. We love to run power football, but we also like to run the read option here and there.”
The offense has been slightly changing year to year based off of the players. That has been especially true on the defensive side of the ball.
“We started in a standard 4-4.The last two years we have been a 3-5. This last year we were more attacking on defense,” Joyce said. “We got some guys in the right spots. We were able to make the offensive line guess where the pressure was coming from. We dropped our points given up per game by something like fifteen points a game and broke quite a few school records for defense. We will be a 3-5 team until we run out of linebackers, but it is always a year to year thing.”
The one win season in 2015 was nearly as surprising as the state tournament run the next year. The team felt the 2015 team was ready to make a jump and the Bulldogs jumped out to a 1-1 start.
“Little by little we were losing close games,” Joyce said. “In our last game, we rushed for 350 yards and lost. I don’t know if that has ever happened in football. We had the lead in the fourth quarter three times. We were not a great team, but we were right there with three or four games. We were competitive, but we didn’t compete enough.”
The Turnaround is Complete
The compete level especially went up on the defensive side of the ball and was one of the reasons the team went from one win to the state tournament. The biggest change might have been off the field. The staff’s team building – which had been a staple of Joyce’s time as the head coach – ramped up last offseason.
“Evan Rosa – my defensive coordinator, told me a story about P.J. Fleck – this was when he was with Western Michigan – and golf balls,” Joyce said. “The first golf balls were smooth, and they would break easily. People figured out if you start denting them they will go further. We thought that was a great visual tool we could use. We created our mantra Dent by Dent – kind of a play off of the Gophers’ Brick by Brick. We used that to stress personal growth in our players – not only on the field but off as well. The dents they take in – the negative things – are only going to make them go further.”
“At the beginning of the year we had them write on physical golf balls,” Joyce continued. “One golf ball was a positive thing like goals they had. We put those in a bag and brought the bag to every game. On the other ball, we had them write down one hardship – whatever has been something difficult for them or something they overcame. At our fall barbecue – we are out in a corn field so we had the kids tee up their ball in front of the parents and everybody and drive the past hardships into the field symbolizing those dents that they took on to get past this hardship and now they can go farther in football and life. We would visualize things like that and everything we did this year referenced Dent by Dent.”
One of the other things they did under the Dent by Dent theme was a focus word of the week. They would use words like grit and determination. They also do something called Focus Sessions.
“It is pretty simple,” Joyce said. “They all close their eyes, and we give them a situation like ‘it is third and four we are going to run power.’ What does that look like, what does that feel like? Go to the future and see themselves doing that. We never want them to encounter a situation they are not prepared for.”
They assigned partners who wouldn’t normally interact together and had them periodically during practice go to that partner and interact in different ways.
“They have to put the time in to be able to trust each other,” Joyce said.
On the practice field, they stress pursuit to the ball, taking good angles and giving maximum effort. They also stress ball security.
“It is a testimate to our running backs and our running back coach Connor Morton. We ran the ball 400 times and fumbled the ball four times.”
Based on the status of their feeder program it doesn’t feel like they will be going back to a one-win season anytime soon. JWP has had a youth football program going in the area for almost ten years and have had the same junior high coaches since Joyce took over. When Joyce took over, he wanted to get the community involved as soon as possible.
“Our booster club has been beyond phenomenal,” Joyce added. “When I took over I put a premium on the booster club. I wanted to take care of them because they take care of us. What our parents put in with time and effort is tremendous.”
Along with Rosa, Morton started with Joyce and at the age of 19 and has been with Joyce since the beginning. He is the JV coach, runs the special teams and the de-facto equipment manager.
“(Morton) has been a steady hand for us. His family owns a hardware store so if we need anything he runs up there to grab it for us. A couple of years ago when St. Paul Humboldt came down to play us. We had to send them to the hardware store because there are so many mosquitoes down here and they didn’t have any bug spray.”
To make the jump to a program that spends more seasons worried about making the state tournament than getting to the .500 mark, Joyce brings it back to the commitment to the weight room.
“You are not going to be a consistent team without your mid-level guys getting better. Those are the guys that can make the biggest gains,” Joyce explained. “Your top level guys can only go so far because they are already good. If you get a guy in the weight room who skill level isn’t high or hasn’t lifted before, and we get him for a summer in the weight room – that is a kid who can play for you.”
This coming season Joyce has a core of guys he expects to lead the team in 2017. Sam Eustice was the first junior captain in the history of the program. Lineman Andrew Larson will be a senior and leads off the field as well as on. He routinely gets up a half an hour early so he can pick up teammates to get into lift before school. Braydon Johnson, Brady Ruschmeyer, and Jack Borneke are returning starters Joyce will also be leaning on for leadership.
“The turnaround aspect of our story is about the kids,” Joyce concluded. “The coaches can take them only so far, but they bought in. The kids bought into our system. They bought into the mental aspect of it. They were all in. That is not a coaching thing. We can get them to a point, but they have to go the rest of the way. This is their team.”
Their team did the impossible. They took a team that had not had a winning season in anyone’s recent memory and went to State. They went from 1-8 to State.