Playoff scouting: You don’t know what you don’t know

If there is one thing I have learned about myself, it’s that I’m an awful athletic talent evaluator. For a while, I actually thought I was good at it, but after so much evidence to the contrary, I have come to the realization that I stink at it.

I’ve looked at my share of high school football tape/video over the years and I can recognize a really good player when I see one – who can’t? – but it’s the rest of it that gives me problems.

I might think a defense is the second coming of the ’85 Bears, only to find out that they couldn’t play dead in a real game.

That’s why I have this unending fascination with how high school coaches break down future opponents, especially at this time of year when they are often playing teams from other parts of the state in the playoffs.

When you play teams from your own area, there is a definite familiarity. You may have played them last year or you can compare them to a common opponent. A few calls to some coaching brethren and you’ve got them all scouted up.

Not now. Not in the playoffs.

Welcome to the we-have-no-idea portion of the scouting process.

“You know usually when both teams are warming up, the coaching staffs don’t really pay much attention to the other side of the field?” says Loyola’s Mike Greene, who is now in his 28th year as a head coach. “In the playoffs, you are always looking over there to see if the guy who you thought was 5-foot-10 is really 6-foot-5.”

Personal aside: When my high school team was playing in the state semifinals at Lutcher, which was No. 1 in the state and had won 26 straight, we were warming up on one side of the field when a thunderous roar overcame the stadium as the home team took the field for warmup.

Anthony Catanese, our head coach and a meticulous scouter of every detail about an opponent, didn’t want to appear too curious about the Bulldogs. So he kept his back turned and asked assistant coach Tony Rinaudo, “What do they look like?”

“Coach, don’t turn around,” Rinaudo told him, “You don’t want to know.”

(By the way, we won.)

Playing a team from another part of the state is both exciting and scary all at the same time.

“You think you know and then you got to the game and you think, Where has this guy been?” Byrd coach Stacy Ballew says. “And then you figure out later on that the kid had been hurt in Week 3.”

That’s because teams typically don’t trade games from the entire season. Byrd traded the last three games of the season with Jesuit for this week’s game; Loyola traded the last four for its game with Ascension Episcopal.

What happened beyond those games is where the surprises come in.

“You just have to do your homework,” says Evangel coach Denny Duron. “We played a team one year that looked like they ran the single wing. It looked like it was going to be an easy game. We were lucky to get out of there with a win. There was no way we could get ready for what we were going to face because you couldn’t tell on film.”

There are a whole lot more phone calls being made come playoff time than there are during the regular season. “My phone has been blowing up all week,” Ballew says. “Coaches who are playing teams that run similar offenses to ours are asking me how to beat it. Like I’m really going to tell them.

“You just don’t know,” he adds. “You look at the scores from games they’ve played against other teams. You get rosters, but sometimes they are right but sometimes they are way off.”

“I need to believe what I’ve seen on film, but sometimes it is just a crapshoot,” Duron says. “You just hope what you are seeing is what you thought. But you can do all the research you want. You know what? It really doesn’t matter. Because they are in the bracket and you are going to have to play them.”

Greene says you can break down all the video you want, but coaches are well aware that it won’t tell the complete story.

“Film doesn’t tell you who is coming back from an injury,” he says. “I’ve been in games where two guys I’d never seen before show up and dominate. But that’s what’s fun about being in the playoffs against people you have never seen before. It’s interesting for sure.”

Especially if you don’t turn around. 

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