Varsity football tackles obstacles


Audrey Wong, Anusha Kothari and Bennie Chang

Top left: The team listens to an uplifting message from their coach after a heartfelt homecoming loss to Gunn High School on Oct. 25. Top right: Senior Jonathan Leslie runs the ball past a defender. The team has become less hesitant to tackle this season, which has contributed to gaining more yards in their games. Bottom right and center: The team refl ects on the game and celebrates the positive aspects of their performance.

Anusha Kothari and Michelle Zhu

As the buzzer rang at the end of fourth quarter, Lynbrook’s varsity football players raced onto the field to celebrate the first victory of their high school careers, showering each other with Gatorade and shouting in excitement. 

On Sept. 20, the varsity football team defeated San Jose High School 17-6, marking the end of the team’s two-year losing streak. Senior Ananth Pilaka scored Lynbrook’s first touchdown of the game, reaching over a defender to catch a ten-yard pass from junior Lucas Liang. Shortly after, junior Danielle Ma scored three points by making a 33-yard field goal. In the second half, junior David Heydinger broke six tackles on an 88-yard punt return to score the team’s final touchdown, sealing Lynbrook’s victory. 

“The win was just a first step for us,” said Pilaka, who has been the Lynbrook football team since his freshman year. “It was a reminder that we’re moving somewhere because we feel like we are getting better with each game even though our record and scores never really reflect that.”

The varsity team last won in the 2016-17 season, ending the season with a 5-5 record. At the time, current seniors were freshmen on the JV football team and only witnessed varsity’s wins from the sidelines; current sophomores and juniors have only seen losses. The varsity team’s victory against San Jose High School marked the first time that any player on the team had won a high school football game. 

“There’s a tradition we have where if we win, we get a play a song called ‘Country Roads’ by John Denver,” Pilaka said. “I never got to listen to that song since I had never won a game, and I’ve always wanted to; I was happy to finally get to do that.”

The win was a significant emotional victory for the team as it served as proof to the community and to players themselves that Lynbrook football was capable of winning.

“Football at Lynbrook isn’t associated with winning; so [the win was important in] proving to ourselves that we could actually compete,” sophomore Lucas Liang said. “We could actually make a difference, we made a change. It really gave the whole team a boost of confidence.”

Throughout the game, the players were not just fighting for the first win of their high school careers, but also against the prejudice and stigma surrounding football at Lynbrook. Frequent losses are not the only thing perpetuating the negative association with football at Lynbrook; peers also contribute to the stigma by engaging in conversations that undermine the team’s efforts. 

“What people don’t know about football is that we really do care,” Liang said. “We literally sit in our locker room for a good hour after a game, just crying and talking to each other about how we could do better.”

This year, the team has especially focused on improving not only its game plan and ability, but also the overall team dynamic and the work ethic of the players. Unlike in the past two years, every player this season prioritizes football and consistently attends practice.

“People will be held accountable if they don’t show up to practice,” Pilaka said. “We are trying to emulate [the 2016-17] varsity team’s work ethic, which is our first step to a winning season.”

The team practices rigorously, five days a week from 3:30 to 6 p.m. This continues through the entire fall sports season in addition to pre-season practices in the summer and year-long workouts. The daily practices begin with a series of stretches and drills tailored to each player’s position. Afterward, the players come together and review mistakes from past games as well as prepare for the next game. The team often holds film sessions on Saturdays to further break down mistakes and get ready for upcoming games. 

“Our drills are pretty basic right now; before I start adding more to them, I want to find out what we’re truly good at,” said varsity head coach RJ Davis. “One of the models that I use is, ‘we’re sticking to straight vanilla, eventually we’ll start adding some sprinkles and bananas or get a chocolate swirl in there.’”

Since Lynbrook players are on average smaller in stature than players on other teams, they have to play harder, faster and smarter.  This season, the team emphasized physicality making themselves stronger through intense conditioning. As a result, many of the players are less hesitant to tackle their opponents. This additional confidence enabled the team to gain more yards and score one more touchdown than the other team in their victory on Sept. 20. 

The team chemistry has also considerably improved; players no longer refer to each other as just “teammates.” Instead, they describe themselves as a “family” or “tight-knit group of friends.” In order to foster a warm environment, new captains are assigned every game based on their performance during that week’s practices. 

“Last year, there was always a tension [on the team] between the captains and the players, and the coaches were a lot more authoritative than this year,” Pilaka said. “This year, there’s no hierarchy, so there is more open communication, and we are all close to each other.”

The players also builds a positive atmosphere through team bonding activities with each other outside of practice and games. During the season, teammates spend about four hours together daily. Before practices, they usually workout together for 30 to 60 minutes, and after, they play spikeball for one to two hours. The team often hangs out at Jake’s of Saratoga after games to relax and reflect on the game. 

Additionally, the new coaching staff has played a significant role in improving team dynamic. In the past, coaching staff members overtly disagreed with each other over offensive strategies and acted more like authority figures than mentors to the players. This year, the coaches have not only established a culture of growth within the team, emphasizing the importance of improvement over winning, but have also worked hard to build a personal connection with the players.

“They are at that level of intimacy with us where, hypothetically, we could talk about problems and issues that we have at home, and they are there to listen to us,” Pilaka said. 

The coaches are the team’s number one fans, motivating the players during tough games and always believing in them. This support has instilled a culture of determination in the team and keeps them hopeful to win more games in the future. Despite facing difficult opponents throughout the season, Davis is confident that the team will continue to improve. 

“Don’t shut us out yet. This may not be the year, but I can tell you that as long as I’m here, I will continue on finding ways to show improvement. Don’t give up on us yet. We’re here for Lynbrook. We are Vikings,” Pilaka said.