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West Chester's Zwaan cherishes playoff run

Driving from his home in Malvern to the football office at West Chester University, Rams coach Bill Zwaan beat the snow Tuesday morning, getting in about 6:30 a.m.

West Chester head coach Billy Zwaan watches his team during a practice. (Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)
West Chester head coach Billy Zwaan watches his team during a practice. (Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)Read more(Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)

Driving from his home in Malvern to the football office at West Chester University, Rams coach Bill Zwaan beat the snow Tuesday morning, getting in about 6:30 a.m.

"Now we're locked in here for a little while," Zwaan said over the phone a little later in the morning.

Not that he had other big plans. When your season has made it to "once-in-a-lifetime,'' you're not exactly trying to beat it out of there to go watch Maury or something.

Although Zwaan used the "once-in-a-lifetime'' phrase, this is West Chester's second time to the Division II national semifinals during his 11 years at the school. Maybe that phrasing suggests the Rams have more to give?

Just getting on a plane is a big deal in D-II. The Rams will do that Friday, flying south for a game the next day in Hickory, N.C., facing Lenoir-Rhyne. Never mind that you don't know the name. Both schools have football players, both are once-beaten, trying to get to the national final for the first time.

Let's offer this as a statement of fact: Zwaan, now 59 years old, could coach at any level. He's one of those guys you could see being successful in any business, sports-related or not. Before West Chester, he won 79.5 percent of his games at D-III Widener. D-I schools that never looked his way - it's tempting to say you blew it.

Zwaan's not complaining. He's been in the same house for 21 years. Even picking Malvern as the place to live proved providential - it's practically equidistant between West Chester and Widener.

"The coaching profession - that never happens,'' Zwaan said of staying put. "We've been so lucky to have my kids grow up and go to the same school.''

He knows how much the world has changed since he moved from offensive coordinator to head coach when his boss, Bill Cubit, did take off for Division I.

"This is what I've always felt - you have to keep moving with the times,'' Zwaan said.

I thought Zwaan was talking about X's and O's, but he was looking at the bigger picture.

"There are things nowadays you can't do and can't say,'' Zwaan said. "Video is used in a much different way. You have to be able to get the video to your players. There's so much technology involved. There was a time I would say, 'Hey, I don't know how to do that kind of thing.' That's not good enough anymore.''

Now, he said, West Chester films practice, coaches add comments about specific plays, they send it to the receivers or linebackers in real time, comments attached. Players can watch it before the next practice.

"The other piece, when we watch film on Sunday, they've already watched that Saturday game three times,'' Zwaan said. "When we get them, I'll be talking about a play, 'Yeah, Coach I saw that; I should have done this or done that.' "

Adding younger coaches to his staff really helped, Zwaan said. "When I was coaching at Widener, 17 years ago, I was young,'' Zwaan said. "I thought I could relate to the kids a lot better. You need guys who can talk to the kids, be the go-between. You have to keep doing that. I'm not changing so much as I'm making the guys around me different and they're helping me stay on top of things.''

This year, Zwaan stopped calling offensive plays, named a new offensive coordinator - promoting Bill Zwaan Jr., former Rams standout quarterback.

"He's made suggestions and stuff,'' Zwaan Jr. said. "He's let me call every single play this year. He's been real good with that. Every now and then a suggestion, here and there.''

"It really let's me see the big picture,'' Zwaan Sr. said. "I can help out in a lot of ways, can make suggestions on both sides, take the big picture of the game, manage the game. I can be better on the sidelines. Now when I see things, I can just throw a suggestion in there. Sometimes they use it.''

Zwaan knew they were building toward a strong season. They expected to contend in the PSAC East. They knew they had a big-time running back in Harlon Hill finalist Rondell White, a talented quarterback in Sean McCartney, a strong returning offensive line.

"When you get to this level, other guys have to step in,'' Zwaan said. "It seems like each week another guy steps up and makes a big play for us.''

Last week was Exhibit A, on the road facing an undefeated Shepherd team that Zwaan Jr. said had a defense that was "absolutely ridiculous - the best defensive line I've seen.'' The Rams knew they had to get in front or could be in trouble.

A crucial early score gave West Chester the lead before Shepherd tightened. Later on, West Chester's defense did something special, intercepting passes on three straight plays, running two back for touchdowns. (Talk about once-in-a-lifetime.) Shepherd was ranked sixth nationally, while the Rams were 15th, but the final score was 28-7.

"It's huge for the program, in a lot of ways - recruiting, number one, now kids are seeing you in TV, following in the newspaper,'' Zwaan said. "From an alumni stand, everybody is real fired up, on board.''

Asked what TV outlet is showing Saturday's game, Zwaan said ESPN3. That's online only. But the old(er) coach with new tricks understands that for his target audience, that's the same as watching on a television set.

"I get e-mails from our ex-players - 'I watched it on my phone,' " Zwaan said.

More evidence that once-in-a-lifetime can happen anywhere and be just as satisfying.