The Sibley East Wolverines had won roughly half their games the last five years – including a trip to the state tournament in 2012 — but shortly after the 2016-17 school year ended, Alan Halverson was hired to take over the program.
Although it was Halverson’s first head coaching job, he helped guide the Wolverines to a seven-win regular season – their best mark in five years. He did it with the help of some dedicated seniors and a willingness not to try to force a square peg into a round hole.
Halverson first got involved in football in third grade when a friend on his block told the future coach he was going to play. Halverson played for St. Agnes and then played for two years at St. Thomas. During his college career, the coaching bug hit.
“My first year in college I got the opportunity to coach baseball at an elementary school,” Halverson said. “I had a great experience. I just kept coaching and had the opportunity to volunteer as a high school football coach (at St. Agnes) while I was in college, so I just kept going and ran with it.”
Soon he was a paid assistant coach and after a handful of years – including a stint as the defensive coordinator – he started to look for a head coaching position. Sibley East needed a teacher and head football coach.
“I was hired as a teacher first, and eventually it worked out that I was offered the head coaching position. It all started to fall into place.”
One of the things Halverson learned from the coaches he played and coached under was the need to be able to adapt.
“Make sure what you are doing and how you are coaching is adjusting schemes and strategies to fit the skills of the players and not trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Let the kids use their natural abilities.”
To make sure he is putting squares into squares and circles into circles Halverson had to learn about his kids – fast. After a pair of middling seasons, Halverson almost immediately saw a determination from the incoming seniors that .500 was not going to be good enough. That determination jump-started the get to know you portion of the season between coach and players.
“The (kids) were hungry, and they wanted it. When I showed up in the first week of June right after I got hired I was worried about getting stuff scheduled and getting the word out,” the first year head coach said. “I found out the senior class had already scheduled everything through the wrestling coach. I just had to make sure my schedule was clear.”
Halverson and the players used the weight room, seven on seven sessions and camps to get to know each other.
“It was invaluable. If the kids wouldn’t have taken that intuitive; most of our stuff would have had to have been installed in the first two weeks of fall camp. By the time we got there the seniors already knew what was going on,” the former Tommie said.
The offseason program was kept reasonably low-key, giving coach, staff, and players all a chance to feel each other out. When he was installing his offense and defense, Halverson tried to make things as relatable as possible to what the kids already knew.
“I would ask ‘what do you guys call this?’ so I heard their terminology and how they described things I would translate what I wanted to say into the terminology they already had. That way their understanding was quicker.”
Although Halverson keeps his schemes flexible depending on the kids who are running it, his offense and defense both have core principles.
“The offense is a mix of Rod’s [assistant coach Rod Tollefson] style and my style. We took some input from the kids because if they weren’t excited about the offense or didn’t believe in it, then it doesn’t matter what you run if the players don’t think it is going to work.”
“We do a little bit of pistol, but we do split back and a tight end and two wide receivers,” Halverson continued. “We have some dives, and triple option looks. We like to run the ball and no matter what the play is the defense is seeing what could be one of many plays after the first couple of steps so when they reading their keys they don’t know where to take their read steps.”
The basic defense came from a clinic Halverson attended.
“I got the base idea for the defense from a high school coach from California. It is basically a 4-4. Depending on what the kids do well it can have a 5-3 or 4-3 look as well. I like it because the way is it designed is it funnels everything into an alley. You can run it with the same rules for everybody, so there is not much change, but it gives the kids the freedom to position themselves that put them in a position where they are comfortable and can cover your responsibilities.”
A Successful First Year
It didn’t take long for Halverson to realize he had a group of kids who were going to have success.
“Week one my overall feeling was just relief to get that first win. After that, we played a couple of tough teams early. We had New Richland and Maple River. We had to overcome some adversity, and the guys responded.”
Part of the ease of the transition was because of the staff Halverson put together.
“The guys that are on staff – having guys who have been there and know the program and the kids has been huge,” Halverson admitted. “Tollefson had been on the staff for a long time. He is in a team picture of the Gaylord Spartans state championship team from the 1970s. How I approached my chat with him was more of a recruiting session for me – trying to keep him on the staff. He has been in the community and is great with the kids. The kids love and respect him. I asked him if he wanted to run the offense or the defense and he wanted the offense. We talked about what he wanted to run, and we modified it to fit that philosophy.”
Michael Bullert and Dave Strack are both guys who have been in the area and already knew all the kids, and they all knew them. The first time the coaches and players met the only guy people didn’t know was Halverson.
Halverson has also relied on a committed parent.
“Kevin Durham Sr. volunteers on the coaching staff and has been helping out almost since the day I started.”
You can have the best coaches in the world but if you don’t have kids that will buy into what you are doing it doesn’t matter what the coaches say or do.
“The guys on the team wanted to be good, and they went out and have taken it,” Halverson said. “Like I told them, this is their team I am just here to help guide and put you in the best position possible. Those guys bought in. They are hungry, the wanted it, and they have taken it and run with it.”
The program has had solid numbers, but like all coaches, Halverson is always looking for more guys. He knows who the best recruiters in the program are.
“As much as I can say ‘hey come out and do this and do that’ all the time it can become noise. In my experience, their friends’ word telling them they are having a blast and are having fun carries more weight than anything I can say. I just try to build relationships as a teacher.”
Halverson teaches mainly freshmen and builds those relationships whenever he can. Although the season ended sooner than they hoped, the Wolverines were led by a group of kids that excelled on and off the field.
“The captains do everything,” Halverson said. “Three of the four captains take post-secondary classes and the one that doesn’t, does some out of school intern work. They lead in the classroom and in the hallway. Jaden Podratz (our 264th ranked senior) plays center and defensive tackle. He has been playing varsity since 8th grade. Kevin Durham Jr. (234th ranked senior) has been our primary running back. He is looking at some great schools (for college). Lucas Chavez plays guard and is our field side outside linebacker. He is the guy I know will get the guys lined up and knows the playbook.”
Halverson feels the key going forward as a program is to continue to not only build the foundation in the younger grades but keeping them out for football all the way through high school. He has been trying to do it by keeping football fun.
“Sometimes practice is a grind, so we build up the games as the fun night,” Halverson said. “Anything that is fun you have to put in the baseline work to get better. The last couple of minutes Rod lets the seniors call the plays or come up with some trick plays that maybe they made up so they can have some fun with at the end of practice.”
If year one is any indication, the Sibley East program will be a factor for years to come. As long as they continue to adapt to each other, the program appears to be in good hands – as long as they don’t try to put any round pegs into square holes.