The head coach was someone who once felt he had to handle everything, from the offense to the defense to special teams. One assistant coach caught touchdowns from arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play football. Another assistant feels fortunate to just be alive today.

The Garnet Valley coaching staff is an eclectic group, filled with a nice blend of youth and coaching lifers, with a combination of good people coaches and good skill coaches.

It's a staff that Jaguars head coach Mike Ricci credits for placing Garnet Valley in a position to win the PIAA Class AAA state championship for the first time in school history, when the Jags meet Thomas Jefferson High tomorrow at 7 p.m. at Hersheypark Stadium.

"I think what's made us so successful is how selfless this staff is, as selfless as the team," said Ricci, whose 13-1 Jaguars beat Lampeter-Strasburg, 27-20, to win the Eastern final last Friday night.

"We, without a doubt, wouldn't be in this position without this staff," Ricci added. "I would put this staff up against any staff anywhere, and at any level, they're that good. A lot of staffs have good football guys, and some staffs have good people guys, but we have a staff that has both. These guys have put countless hours in and they all do it without personal agendas. We have no no-know-it-alls, and it's a staff that's always finding ways to do things better."

Perhaps the most unique member of the Garnet Valley staff is offensive line coach Joe Valerio, who played offensive tackle at Ridley High, the University of Pennsylvania and for 5 years in the NFL, 4 with the Kansas City Chiefs, catching three touchdown passes from Joe Montana (as a tackle eligible).

For Valerio, who's coaching for the first time, the experience of being part of Ricci's staff has rekindled his passion for football. There was a time when Valerio couldn't even watch a game, adjusting to real life beyond the fantasyland of the NFL.

"It was very difficult for me to remove myself from the game," said Valerio, the Managing Director of Wells Fargo Insurance Services in Philadelphia. "Coach Ricci offered to take me out to lunch one time and asked me if I'd be interested in coaching, but he told me to talk it over with my wife, Jennifer, and my three daughters. I wanted to be able to give it a full commitment, see if coaching worked with my schedule. Once I told Mike I was on board, he told me how excited he was to have my family join the Garnet Valley family. That sealed it for me."

Rick Stroup, Garnet Valley's defensive coordinator, has coached at the collegiate and high school level since 1978. While Ricci is not about to take any credit - "It's the kids and this staff, they're the reason why we're in a position that we're in," Ricci keeps repeating - Stroup has a different perspective. He has been part of Ricci's staff for 8 years. He likes the way Ricci breaks down practices to the most minute detail, to the point that it's run like a college program.

And Ricci is the conductor of the Garnet Valley symphony.

"That's Mike," Stroup said. "He's the guy who waves his hands and makes everything work. But you wouldn't know it with him. He sets the tone, the attitude, the direction. Not just for the kids, but the staff. His rule is simple: Do your job and everything else will follow."

It's a philosophy that attracted Scott Green to the program. Green, the Jags' offensive coordinator who drew up last week's winning play with fellow assistant Paul Milewski, survived a life-threatening situation last year when his appendix burst and complications forced him to have two surgeries and spend more than 2 months hospitalized.

Despite the 12-inch scar that traverses his stomach, severe weight loss and sleepless nights, Green has been able to return to the sidelines full time this season.

"Mike lets us coach," Green said. "We have nine, 10 guys on this staff, and somehow Mike is able to bring all those different personalities together. I think that's Mike's strongest quality, to bring everyone together to believe in the same thing. He's a real leader, but I just wish Mike would enjoy this ride a little more. If anyone deserves winning a state championship, Mike certainly does. We have some great leaders. Mike's developed them."

Probably no one exemplifies that more than Eric Van Wyk, the Jaguars' senior quarterback who has had rocky starts the last 3 weeks but refused to succumb. He drove the Jags to come-from-behind victories in each game to reach this point.

Van Wyk sees how late the coaching staff stays to break down film, create game plans, sometimes until 8 at night. There is a bond there that may never break.

"The coaches all have families and they put incredible hours into this program," Van Wyk said. "They're always looking for ways to make us better. But I think it's deeper than that. It's more important to Coach Ricci and this staff that we're good people, more than good football players. I just hope I can maintain a friendship with this staff for my entire life. They're all like fathers to me." *

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