Grand Valley players adjust to coach’s absence
PARACHUTE — Talk about getting thrown into the fire.
The best-laid plans of the Grand Valley High School football team nearly went awry. It’s only through the efforts of the coaching staff and the players that the season has been salvaged.
The Cardinals (7-1, 5-0 Class 2A Western Slope Conference) began the season primed and ready to be competitive in its first foray into the 2A football ranks.
They’d breezed through their first two nonconference games. Then the season took an unexpected turn.
Early in the morning of Sept. 12, the day of Grand Valley’s scheduled nonconference game with Hayden, head coach Mike Johnson made a frantic run to the emergency room in Rifle. Johnson had appendicitis.
Defensive coordinator Jeremy Tanner suddenly found himself in the unfamiliar position of having to call all the shots.
“It put us in an odd spot,” Tanner said, understating the case.
The concern for their coach and the confusion about calling offensive plays (Johnson was the offensive coordinator) resulted in a 28-7 loss to Hayden.
“At the time, we thought he’d be out another week or so,” Tanner said.
But this has turned into the operation from hell for Johnson.
Ever the trooper, Johnson tried to make an appearance on the sidelines when the Cardinals played Basalt on Sept. 26 and at home the next week against Aspen. Immediately after the Aspen game, he checked into the hospital in Glenwood Springs.
As it turned out, two different abscesses developed as a result of complications from the surgery. In addition, Johnson developed a blood clot near one of his lungs.
The players and coaches readily admit that, Johnson’s illness notwithstanding, the week of practice leading up to the Hayden game was not the most intense.
After the loss, “We went into the next week saying (to the team), ‘I hope this is a wake-up call for you,’ ” Tanner said.
“After that loss, that kind of showed we weren’t where we needed to be,” senior halfback and outside linebacker Colton Cowan said.
“I think we were kind of big-headed,” senior tight end and defensive back Landon Paskett said.
Tanner is still calling the defensive signals and is the de facto interim head coach. Former Grand Valley standout quarterback Danny Manzanares, who was helping coach, has stepped in as offensive coordinator.
“I’ve been most impressed with the coaching staff and the kids,” first-year Grand Valley Athletic Director Dave Walck said.
The coaches communicate several times a week with Johnson.
“He needed that,” Tanner said of Johnson’s coaching sessions while being hospitalized, something to help take his mind off his health problems.
“When we go see him or talk to him on the phone, he’s all about football,” Cowan said.
“I’ve gone to see him and he’s still talking football,” Paskett said.
The team has answered the challenge, going unbeaten in its last five games heading into Friday night’s contest at Cedaredge.
“It’s us executing what the coaches tell us,” Cowan said.
“I think everybody’s stepped up more than we would have thought. You’ve got leadership from guys you didn’t expect,” Paskett said.
“Whether (Johnson’s) there or not, they’ve shown great discipline,” Walck said.
Johnson’s absence on the sidelines has given the team another goal this season.
“We say we’re doing it for him,” Cowan said.
After three setbacks since the surgery, Johnson, who’s lost more than 30 pounds through the ordeal, has learned not to try to rush back
“He wants to be back bad and we want him back,” Paskett said.
But not until he’s fully rested and recovered.