As the room got dark, Woodbury's players saw the light.

That was Zack Valentine's plan. He wanted his veterans to cram into a little office off the gymnasium. He wanted to show them film of their most recent game, a Sept. 17 loss to Haddonfield.

He wanted them to see beyond the screen.

"I wanted them so close together they were breathing on each other," Valentine said. "I wanted them to see what I was seeing. I wanted them to realize how much talent they had.

"I keep pictures of old teams on the wall. I pointed to the picture of the 1998 team. That was the last team to win a title. I told them there was more talent in this room than was on that team."

Something happened that day. Valentine says it. Woodbury seniors Brian Purnell and Dyshawn Davis say it, too.

Purnell said it was Valentine's "best day" as a coach. Davis said "something clicked" that Monday afternoon.

Woodbury was 1-1. The Thundering Herd had lost a 28-7 decision to Haddonfield on the previous Thursday night.

But their coach was convinced of his team's potential. He knew his guys were something special. He just had to get them to believe it.

"I told them that day they could run the table," said Valentine, The Inquirer's South Jersey football coach of the year. "I said, 'We're going to take it one game at a time. But I know where we're going to be in early December. We're going to be right here playing for a championship.' "

Valentine is a good coach. He's also something of a visionary, because he was 100 percent correct about the future of his football team.

Woodbury won its final 10 games. The Thundering Herd beat rival Paulsboro twice. They finished 11-1 and captured the Colonial Conference Patriot Division title as well as the South Jersey Group 1 title.

"Coach Valentine is the reason we're here," Purnell, the team's quarterback and free safety, said after Woodbury's Dec. 5 victory over Paulsboro in the sectional championship game. "He believed in us. He told us we were the best team he's ever coached, and he convinced us we could do it."

Valentine's impact on the Thundering Herd was clear in the title game. It was a miserable day, as a cold rain mixed with swirling snow to turn Woodbury's field into an absolute quagmire.

Woodbury never blinked. The Thundering Herd held the Red Raiders to just 75 yards, committed zero turnovers and rolled to a 16-0 win.

"Players kept coming off the field and saying, 'It's for you, Coach, it's for you,' " Valentine said. "I don't need that. I don't need another jacket or ring or trophy or plaque. But when guys are going to put themselves out there for you like that, you've got to give them something back."

Davis, a wide receiver and defensive back who has committed to Syracuse, said Valentine had a special rapport with this team.

"He's more than a coach to us," Davis said. "He teaches us to be young men. He teaches us how to act on the football field, in the classroom, and on the street."

This was Valentine's eighth season as head coach. He was an assistant for a few years before that, serving on Jim Boyd's staff when the Thundering Herd won their last sectional title in 1998.

Valentine has a 58-28 career record. He has an experienced staff of assistants that includes former head coaches Butch Gale and Al Mailahn as well as Jeremy Landis, Brian McKillop, Jimmer Bundy, and Willie Murray.

"Those guys deserve a lot of the credit," Valentine said of his assistant coaches. "They worked so hard to get this team into position to do what we did."

The 52-year-old Valentine is a North Carolina native. He was a star player at East Carolina, winning the MVP award at the Independence Bowl, and earned a Super Bowl ring as a member of the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers. He played three seasons in Pittsburgh and finished his career with the 1982 Eagles.

Valentine says he's a teacher first and a coach second. Like most teachers, and most coaches, he strives to make that special connection with his kids.

He strives for that moment when the light comes on.

This year, it happened in the dark, in that little office off the gymnasium.

Ten weeks later, the coach and his players were standing in the cold rain on a dreary December day. They were splattered with mud. They were holding high a championship trophy.