ALL-AREA FOOTBALL: Kemmis named Coach of the Year for leading Gridley’s turnaround
Matt Kemmis isn’t the type of guy to back down from a challenge, and he faced quite the challenge when he arrived to town in March.
A Southern California native and high school football coach in SoCal since 2001, Kemmis and his wife decided it was time for a change and loaded up their belongings and headed north when a head coaching and teaching position opened up at Gridley High. A little change of pace is what the couple was looking for, and they found exactly that in the small farming community in Butte County where athletics and town pride go hand in hand.
However, the task in front of him wouldn’t be easy.
The Bulldogs were coming off a 1-9 season in 2016, and as the team’s fourth head coach in four years, it was his job to turn around a program that had gone 25-78 without a playoff win in the 10 years prior to his arrival.
He felt some stability was all the team needed, and it didn’t take long for his players to notice a big difference in how things would operate under the new man in charge.
“He said, ‘I’m not here to be your best friend, I’m here to coach you, and we’re going to do whatever we can to pursue a league and section championship,’” recalled senior quarterback Jace Villapania. “We didn’t know what to expect because we had a new coach all four years, but we started practicing harder than we ever did before and we knew early on we were going to be pretty good.
“He expected us to do our best and he believed in us the whole way – that was the biggest thing.”
One of the first things Kemmis did was upgrade Gridley’s weight room and make lifting the No. 1 priority. Soon enough, the Bulldogs’ offseason workout sessions more than tripled in the number of athletes who showed up, setting the stage for what would be a remarkable turnaround.
An offensive line coach by trade, Kemmis preached fundamentals first and unveiled a fast-striking spread offense that would put up points in bunches. The Bulldogs went on to score more than 40 points on seven occasions while going 8-2 in the regular season, won their first playoff game since 2006 and reached the Northern Section Division III semifinals, where they lost to four-time defending champion Sutter.
They finished the year at 9-3 and were one of the section’s biggest surprises, and for the work he did by bringing the program back to its winning days of old, Kemmis has been named the Appeal-Democrat All-Area Coach of the Year for 2017.
“I wanted to instill confidence in them and have them believe they could be successful. I put a pretty extensive plan in, and they complied with everything I asked of them,” Kemmis said. “You could see they were buying into things and believing in themselves, and as the season went on, they became more confident and with confidence comes success.”
There were some doubts early when Gridley trailed 7-6 at halftime in the season opener against Willows. Kemmis could see on his players’ faces that they weren’t sure that this year wouldn’t go the same as all of the others, but he rallied his troops and they outscored Willows 37-0 in the second half to come away with a 43-7 victory.
After losing on the road at Anderson three days later on a short week, the Bulldogs picked up a 55-0 victory over rival Live Oak in the Harvest Bowl, and then shocked many when they went to Paradise and earned a 55-33 win over one of the section’s perennial upper-division powers.
It was the most points a Paradise team had ever allowed at home, and Kemmis viewed the game as a turning point to their season.
“I don’t think I realized how much it meant to them, especially the seniors,” he said. “They hadn’t beaten them going back to their Pop Warner days, and were beaten pretty soundly by them the year before, so to go up there on the Ridge and win was huge. You could see how elated they were, and it gave them credibility.”
The biggest difference came on the offensive side of the ball, where the Bulldogs didn’t huddle and Kemmis barked out the play calls from the sidelines while the team stood at the line of scrimmage. He showed trust in his players by allowing Villapania to call audibles at the line, and the quarterback delivered by rushing for 1,077 yards and passing for another 1,592 to go with 35 combined touchdowns.
“I’ve always been an offensive line coach, and it always begins with the guys up front. We wanted to run the ball to set up play-action and be good in pass protection,” Kemmis said. “We do simple things but try to make them seem complicated. We ran a lot of different formations, motion and a lot of window dressing, really. I always felt that if guys are making mistakes, then you’re doing too much.”
Gridley opened the playoffs as the No. 4 seed and beat Corning 28-7 in the first round in the program’s first home playoff game since 2006. And while the Bulldogs’ season came to an end with a 55-13 loss to Sutter the next week, their only losses cane to the two teams that ended up playing for the section championship.
“He always knew what to do and was always organized,” Villapania said. “He’s my favorite coach I’ve ever played for in any sport. He could joke around at times, but when it was time to get down to business, we knew that’s what we needed to do.”
Kemmis said before the season that he is in Gridley for the long haul, and his arrival has energized the program and the community.
The Bulldogs return several key players next season, and coupled with a strong junior varsity team that finished 9-1, many around the program feel that this is just the beginning.
“It was rewarding to see the kids come along. Everything was knew to them with four coaches in four years, so hopefully we keep the momentum going and build on it,” Kemmis said. “I think we laid a good foundation and that we will improve each season and keep getting better and better.
“It’s an amazing community. They welcomed me with open arms before we even won a football game. The support has been amazing and that’s the neatest thing as a coach, to build relationships not only with the players, but with the community.”
PAST A-D COACHES OF THE YEAR
2016 – Tyler Rutledge, Biggs
2015 – Travis Barker, East Nicolaus
2014 – Travis Barker, East Nicolaus
2013 – John Ithurburn, Yuba City
2012 – Ryan Reynolds, Sutter
2011 – Scott Burnum, Pierce
2010 – John Ithurburn, Yuba City
2009 – Bob Miller, Colusa
2008 – Cullen Meyer, Marysville/Scott Turner, Sutter
2007 – Matt Ray, East Nicolaus
2006 – Mike Mason, Lindhurst
2005 – Mike Mason, Lindhurst
2004 – Scott Turner, Sutter
2003 – Doug Kaelin, Pierce
2002 – Jim Arostegui, Live Oak
2001 – Mike Pena, Biggs
2000 – Scott Turner, Sutter
1999 – Neil Stinson, Marysville
1998 – Tom McCormack, Wheatland
1997 – Jim Arostegui, Live Oak
1996 – Geoff Wahl, East Nicolaus
1995 – Scott Turner, Sutter
1994 – Doug Kaelin, Gridley
1993 – Jim Arostegui, Live Oak
1992 – Jim Arostegui, Live Oak
1991 – Geoff Wahl, East Nicolaus
1990 – Dave Driffil, Colusa
1989 – Dave Lake, Gridley/Del Kalbach, Biggs
1988 – Matt Weinrich, Live Oak
1987 – Dave Warmee, Yuba City
1986 – Geoff Wahl, East Nicolaus
1985 – Dave Warmee, Yuba City
1984 – George Dean, Gridley
1983 – John Luciano, Lindhurst
1982 – George Calkins, Yuba City
1981 – Dave Warmee, Sutter
1980 – None selected
1979 – Bruce Ebbe, Gridley