FROM WORST TO FIRST
The story of High Point Regional High School's amazing transformation from a 1-9 team into league champions
By Kim Goss
Published: Fall 2002
Before the Wildcats’ first game in 2000, head football coach Chris Kappelmeier was extremely optimistic about the coming season. “We’d had six wins the year before, a season in which we were not expected to do well, and many of our players were returning,” says Kappelmeier. “I thought we were going to be pretty good.” He was wrong.
The season was a disaster, and this team from High Point Regional High School in Sussex, New Jersey, finished the regular schedule at the bottom of their league with a 1-8 record. “We only got blown out a couple of times, but it was frustrating,” says Kappelmeier. “The kids were unhappy, and we had a couple of mutinies during the year that resulted in several players quitting the team. It was the first time in my coaching career that I didn’t enjoy going to practice every day.”
Even the fans gave up. “When it came down to our last home game, we had maybe 40 or so fans in the stands. It was a new low. The following week I spent some time in the athletic director’s office talking to parents, and they had already spent some time in the same office talking about me.” As if that verbal thrashing weren’t enough for Coach Kappelmeier, thanks to a special ruling the Wildcats had to take the field one more time.
“New Jersey plays a consolation game for the teams that don’t make the playoffs,” says Kappelmeier. “The system is good if you have four wins, as it gives you a chance to finish at .500, but sometimes you just want to get the season over with --- this was one of those times. We ended up playing Old Tappan High School from Northern Valley, a team that was 3-6 but had played in a really tough league. We played well but it wasn’t enough --- we lost 23-15 and that was the story of that season.”
Of course, when a team does as poorly as the Wildcats did in 2000, people start second-guessing the coach. “We run a Wing-T, and Wing-T coaches are always told to change their offense because ‘it’s so boring’ and supposedly hasn’t worked in 20 years. And of course whatever defense we were in, it was the wrong one.” But Kappelmeier says, regardless of the play calling, it was hard to dig themselves out of their situation because the players were getting physically manhandled on the field. “It’s really tough to motivate kids when they’re getting beat up.”
Looking back at that season, Kappelmeier says that the major problem was not that this was a young team---he had what he characterized as “a good number of seniors.” The problem was that the athletes simply weren’t prepared to play, and Kappelmeier admits that much of that could be attributed to the way he’d been running his off-season conditioning. “We had a voluntary off-season running and lifting program. Normally I had a solid core of seniors who would work hard, but that year it was mainly the younger kids who showed up. I shouldn’t have put my athletes in a position to just do it on their own. Also, the weightlifting program I gave them wasn’t very good. It wasn’t interesting. It wasn’t exciting.”
Despite the disastrous season, Kappelmeier says job security wasn’t on his mind. “The school didn’t have a winning tradition, and in fact had losing streaks of 20 and even 50 straight losses. So the question wasn’t if I was going to lose my job but whether I wanted my job.”
One reason the Sussex community believed High Point couldn’t excel in football is that its league was so competitive. “Last year, six teams we played went to the playoffs,” says Kappelmeier. “Before I came to High Point, a lot of people told me that because we had such tough opponents I shouldn’t expect to win. After the 2000 season, for the first time I started to believe it.”
A Fresh Approach
Kappelmeier’s plan to fix what was broken at High Point began on the bus ride back from the consolation game. “During the long bus ride home, which seemed even longer because we had just lost our ninth game, Tim Librizzi, who coaches the tight ends and split ends, started going on about how we needed to do things differently. What stuck in my head was when he said, ‘You’ve got to put a good weightlifting program in place. You’ve got to come up with someone else’s plan---a program that’s proven---and follow it exactly.’ It was good advice.”
The following Monday two brothers, Mitar and Milan Rudanovic, told coach Kappelmeier, “We want to start lifting this Monday, because we don’t want a season like this to happen again.” Says Kappelmeier, “I didn’t have anything for them Monday, and I didn’t have anything for them the next Monday. But then I remembered the stories I had read in the BFS magazine, and I thought I should find out more about this program. So I called BFS headquarters and talked to Kelly Waite, the sales manager. I asked him a ton of questions and ordered the starter package. At about Thanksgiving I told the Rudanovic brothers I was going to put them on the BFS program.”
Because his previous workouts had not gotten the results he wanted, Kappelmeier decided to take Coach Librizzi’s advice and use the BFS program ‘as is.’ “After hearing about Dr. Shepard’s background in the video and hearing how he came up with the program, I figured he’s the expert in this field and I couldn’t go wrong by doing exactly what he says.”
On the first day he started the BFS program, Kappelmeier was surprised to see not just two players show up, but five. By the time December came around, the group had grown to 15. “At the end of the fall semester the players asked me if I could open the weight room during the Christmas break. That was a 5-3-1 week, and they were all setting records and didn’t want to miss out. They really believed in the program and thought that this was the best way to get bigger, faster and stronger.” That got Kappelmeier to thinking.
“I remembered when the season ended I had asked my coaches for any ideas to improve the team, and one of the suggestions was to have the kids earn their way onto the team. “In the past we didn’t cut anybody---if a kid wanted to come out for football he was going to play. So at the end of February I told the kids that from Memorial Day until the first day of practice in mid-August, to make the team each one of them had to put in 48 hours of training---in the weight room or on the field running or doing plyos or agility work.”
When two-a-days started and the media came out with its pre-season predictions, Kappelmeier found no mention of High Point High School. True to tradition, the Wildcats were expected to lose.
Their opening game was against Sparta, a team that was supposed to be one of the contenders for the league title. High Point beat them 10-3. Says Kappelmeier, “It was a very tough, physical game. And although we made some big mistakes on offense in the fourth quarter, they couldn’t do a thing against our defense. We were simply physically stronger than they were.”
Amazingly, the streak continued and the Wildcats’ victories started piling up. The fans poured into the stands, the crowds grew larger each week. By week eight the Wildcats were 6-1 and up against Pope John High School from Sparta. Pope John was coming into the game undefeated, and High Point needed to beat them to at least share the league title. But there was added incentive. “The previous year they had beaten us 52-13, and threw at the end.” With more than 2000 fans cheering them on, the Wildcats earned their vindication with a 24-14 victory.
The last regular season game was against the team from Vernon, which had beaten the Wildcats 34-6 the previous year and had shared the league title. Vernon also had a larger talent pool of athletes as they had over 500 more students enrolled than High Point. But you don’t win titles on paper, and the ferocious Wildcats ran, passed, blocked and tackled their way to a 28-10 win and a berth in the state playoffs.
The first game of the playoffs was against Northern Highlands High School in Allendale. The Wildcats wo