Russ Edwards had just gotten done coaching a basketball game at Judkins Middle School in Pismo Beach in 2005 when Jon Hitchen rerouted his coaching life.
Hitchen, Nipomo High’s inaugural football coach from 2002 through 2006, was looking to take on someone who could serve as a mutual caretaker for the program still in its infancy.
Edwards, a teacher at Judkins, in the Lucia Mar School District just as Nipomo is, was known for being San Luis Obispo’s co-offensive coordinator during the Tigers’ 2001 CIF-Southern Section Division IV championship run. He served as a San Luis Obispo assistant for three more seasons before Hitchen presented him with the new opportunity.
“Coming down from San Luis High, he brought that winning attitude,” Nipomo tight ends coach Lawrence Rucker said. Rucker has been on the Titans’ staff since the school’s first practice in 2002.
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“It’s not that Jon didn’t have it, but he was building from scratch. Jon put in the foundation of the building — Russ is adding luxury suites. And now we’re out to get a penthouse.”
The Titans (7-3) will look to continue moving on up when they visit Verbum Dei (6-4) of Los Angeles at St. Matthias High in Downey at 7:30 Saturday night in the opening round of the Southern Section Northwest Division playoffs.
Building a winner
This will be the second postseason appearance in the seven-year varsity history of Nipomo, which has won four straight and entered the final week of the regular season ranked No. 7 in the division.
The Titans went a combined 3-26 in their first three varsity campaigns from 2003 through 2005 before reaching .500 in 2006, when Edwards was the team’s defensive coordinator. The next year, he took over as head coach, inheriting an upcoming crop of talent Hitchen was well aware of.
“Some coaches might wait for a down year” to pass the buck, said Edwards, an Oxnard native and Cal Poly grad who has been coaching prep football in San Luis Obispo County since 1993. “But Jon left me a really good group.”
In his first season in charge, Edwards mixed things up offensively, expanding a run-heavy Wing-T offense into a more pass-friendly scheme that broadened the appeal of the football team to the campus’ best athletes who may’ve been more devoted to track and field or basketball.
“It was a little more exciting brand of football, you could say,” Edwards recollected. “That helped me in recruiting the campus.”
In addition to Rucker, many of the Titans’ other assistants were already in place under Hitchen. But Edwards’ San Luis Obispo connections have brought in other contributors who used to coach for the Tigers, including first-year linebackers assistant Steve Kracher, first-year defensive line assistant John Villa and third-year quarterbacks coach Mark Grosz.
First playoff experience motivates seniors
In 2007, a number of the team’s best sophomores, including receiver Kevin Britt and linebacker Duane Hanna, were brought up to the varsity squad for the school’s maiden playoff voyage, which ended in a 23-20 loss at Nordhoff.
“They saw the seniors crying at the end of the game, and I think that kind of motivated those kids,” Rucker said of that sophomore class, which also included Josh Correia and Eric Penningroth — now the Titans’ starting quarterback and running back, respectively.Correia leads the county with 1,536 passing yards, while Britt is tops in receiving with 699. Penningroth, meanwhile, has the county’s No. 2 rushing total at 1,344.
Keeping it going
“It was our goal to make the playoffs and go farther than any team in Nipomo history,” Edwards said. “That would mean winning a playoff game.”
Edwards almost didn’t return to the Titans this fall. Last year, he was initially pink-slipped because of widespread Lucia Mar teacher layoffs stemming from state budget cuts before the district was able to keep him and others thanks to a federal stimulus package. He now teaches at Nipomo High.
“I was on the bubble,” Edwards said. “I may be pink-slipped again this year. But hopefully everything goes well and we get support. It would be great to stay and see the fruition of our work.”
Edwards would like to be able to coach the incoming JV crop of players — 15 of whom have been pulled up to the varsity level for Saturday’s game — that went 8-2 this season.
“Russ has created a situation where every kid gets coached up to be a better player and a better man,” Rucker said. “It’s been great to see the program grow from not winning a league game to where we are now.”