Passing the Baton
There is a lot that goes into being the head coach of the Sandpoint High School football team. Yes, there is the calling of the plays, running practices and organizing the players, but there is also the fundraising, filming, painting the fields, assisting with equipment, paperwork and much more.
So when George Yarno, Jr. was hired as the new head football coach for Sandpoint High School, outgoing Coach Satini Puailoa knew he had to stay on in some type of role to help in the transition.
“If I had just left, it would be like he would have to play 52 card pick up,” said Puailoa of all the pieces that go into running the program. Instead, Puailoa will stay on as the Director of Football, which has allowed Yarno to come in and hit the ground running. “I would never have put George in that position of just handing things over. You cannot just hand the baton; it would not be fair to the kids, the parents or the community.”
While Puailoa was prepared to stay on another year as head coach in the event the administration could not find a qualified candidate, he is now happy to work alongside Yarno to help ensure the transition goes smoothly. And so is his staff of assistant coaches which include Vince Huntsberger, Chris Lassen, Sean Lyon, Chad Loutzenhiser, Al Beard, Steve Miller, Allen Martin and Larry Jeffres.
“Instead of dropping the baton and me picking it up, we are slowly passing it. This will give me an opportunity to fully learn the intricacies of the program and get to know the community better,” said Coach Yarno, whose latest stint was at Highland High School in Pocatello where he served as assistant football coach on a state championship team.
There are many goals Coach Yarno has for the upcoming season, but he said the ultimate goal is simple.
“The number one goal going into every season is to win the state championship,” said Coach Yarno. “But there are smaller goals underneath all of that. Offensive and defensive goals and weight room goals. And we have huge goals of execution and making no mental mistakes.”
Enthusiastic about seeing the program continue to move forward, there have been a record number of athletes showing up at the weight room all summer long in an effort to become bigger, stronger and faster.
Coach Yarno attributes that enthusiasm to the culture Puailoa has created, and he feels very fortunate to be taking over a program where there is also so much support in the transition. “I don’t know anyone who has an opportunity to take over a program like this and have the support I do,” said Coach Yarno, who adds that he is already impressed with how hard the kids work to get things done and how none of them ever complain.
Looking ahead to this season, there will be 24 seniors on the team, six of whom are returning starters. “At the end of last season a majority of them were playing at an all-state level,” said Puailoa, who adds that many of this year’s seniors who were not starters did see a lot of playing time last year.
The returning starters include Walker Jacobson, Clayton Fournier, Robbie Johnson, Zack Alamillo, Justin Hobson and Levi Irish.
“Walker, Clayton and Zack will play defense but will also platoon themselves at fullback,” said Puailoa. “And Robbie will play both quarterback and safety.”
For anyone who has followed Sandpoint football in the past few years, they know that one of Coach Puailoa’s keys to success has been playing higher-level teams. So when he spoke to Coach Yarno about how he felt about “playing up,” Yarno responded that at Highland they were one of the higher level teams so their strategy was to seek out some teams from Utah and a few from the Boise area with whom they could compete at the higher level.
“My philosophy is if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” said Coach Yarno who plans to continue having his new team play against teams such as Mt. Spokane, Gonzaga Prep and others so they can continue to improve.
Going into this season, Yarno and Puailoa both agree that their biggest advantage will be the work that the team puts in during the off-season. “You come into the fourth quarter when everyone is tired, the kids that have pushed themselves to be bigger, faster and stronger are the ones that are going to push through while others on the field fold,” said Coach Yarno.
“There is a saying I believe in – ‘The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender,’” said Yarno. “And that is the kind of culture that Coach Puailoa has built.”
“And George is from that same culture,” adds Puailoa. “We use the weight room to build boys into young men.”
When asked what the biggest challenge will be going into his first season as head coach, Yarno explained that it is the same challenge coaches face each season with new players. “Getting to know your players and their strengths are a challenge for each coach,” said Yarno. But with Coach Puailoa staying on to assist, it is expected to go smoothly.
The two share the same philosophy and Puailoa said Yarno is a younger version of him and his coaching staff.
Yarno does not plan to implement new strategies if it is proven it already works. He provides the analogy of a cook who has worked hard to prepare a wonderful recipe. “He has already prepared the recipe. Instead of me starting from scratch, I’ll take and add my own spices to add to an already great recipe.”
One of the things that has been an integral part of the program for many years is the fact that the coaching staff helps the students to become leaders and mentors to one another. “We have (student) leadership teams at every level,” said Puailoa who adds that it is important to them to also make sure the kids succeed off the field. “We check on their grades six times throughout the year.”
This fall there will be 50 to 60 freshman players, 40 sophomores, 35 juniors and 24 seniors. While the assistant coaches have their designated roles, many are employed full time outside of their football coaching positions so both Yarno and Puailoa will fill in where needed.
Puailoa, who says that he will be doing what he loves to do and that is coaching coaches, explains that Yarno will be calling the plays and working with the offense, but as head coach Yarno will also know the intricacies of the defensive as well. “Because in the future George may bring in an offensive coordinator and he will have to move to more of a defensive role,” said Puailoa.
There will also be the advantage of having a second set of eyes on the sidelines. With Yarno performing the duties of head coach, Puailoa said he will be able to pick up on things that may need adjusting a lot sooner than what is typical. “We won’t have to wait until halftime. I’ll be able to be that second set of eyes and can work with the assistant coaches immediately on what may need to be adjusted.”
At just 32 years of age, Yarno has many years ahead where he can continue the winning tradition. “I’m very excited to be here, and I’m elated to have this opportunity,” he said. “Coach Puailoa primed the pump to make a good run, and this program is second to none.”