Pete Ockuly takes over as CP defensive coordinator
The new day is all of 30 minutes away, and the chaos inside Champlin Park High School is much like it is every year at this time and place.
The school’s football team is about to take the field for its annual Midnight Madness practice, a ritual of sorts held intact by the players’ insistence on getting started at the very first possible moment.
For 20 consecutive years, that walk had been accompanied by a voice that hovered over all others.
Tom VanVoorhis – or simply V to those who knew him best – has that kind of boom to his words, and for the past two decades, his voice would echo through practices like this one, dictating his defenders to do a little more, and little better.
But for the first time in school history, VanVoorhis’ powerful words won’t be a part of the Rebels football season. He stepped down after the 2011 season, opting to watch his son A.J. play college football at North Dakota State University.
That meant as Aug. 12 slowly made its way to Aug. 13, Pete Ockuly had a little more to think about in taking over for VanVoorhis as the mastermind behind the Champlin Park defense.
First and foremost was the attire. Temperatures that night sat comfortably in the 60’s, a measure of perfection for a football practice, and one dictating pants and a sweatshirt for the new D-coordinator.
Somewhere in his garage, VanVoorhis was likely uttering something about being ‘soft.’
“I was thinking about that as I was getting dressed tonight,” admitted Ockuly. “It didn’t matter how cold it was, V wore shorts. But this is new management. If I’m cold, I’m going to put pants on.”
That, however, would be about the extent Ockuly will likely go in separating himself from his predecessor.
Ockuly worked under VanVoorhis with the Champlin Park defense for 15 years. The two hang out away from school, and in it, their classrooms are within a few paces from each other.
The philosophies that have helped the Rebels field dominating defenses for much of VanVoorhis’ tenure remain intact, as does the desire to stay as diverse as possible on that side of the ball.
The voice will change. But not much else.
“He taught me a million things, but one was to stay versatile,” Ockuly said. “He’s one of the most successful defensive coordinators ever in the state of Minnesota, and we’ve put some pretty darn good defenses out there at times, so I don’t want to change much. We’ll have a few new tweaks in some of the things we do, but for the most part, this is still the defense he installed here.”
In reality, it is more a version of it. When VanVoorhis took the reigns 20 years ago, the mission was simple; stop the Wing T and/or the Option. But time has changed the way high school offenses attack, and the Rebels have defended against most of those variations
Over half of their Northwest Suburban Conference brethren have gone to the spread, and the rest have each made some sort of change in philosophy.
“All the Wing T teams are gone,” said Ockuly. “Even Maple Grove, which ran a Veer offense forever, they have a new coach and a new system. Blaine was the quintessential team that was a pound it at you team, and they are all spread now. That’s just the way it is.”
The way Champlin Park is expected to defend this year suits that type of opponent, as the Rebels expect be loaded with athletic defenders across the field. But that group will have to show the ability take a pounding as well, especially in a season that starts against Eden Prairie and includes a late-season road trip to Anoka.
“Eden Prairie runs a Wing-T better than anybody in the state of Minnesota ever has, so obviously it will be a huge challenge,” Ockuly said. “We’ll find out right away if we have a long ways to go, or if we are pretty close.”
The players say they expect it to be the latter. Confidence was brewing throughout that opening practice, and for a team going through its first official workout of the fall, they were as crisp as the air.
“This is the only place we want to be,” said senior defensive back and team captain Brady Soderstrom. “I think that makes it easier for Coach Ockuly. He’s already got the respect of the players. We’re ready to play for him.”
Much of that mindset is garnered in the leadership program Ockuly runs during the summer months with a select group of juniors and seniors.
The rest will be earned in the coming weeks, which is something head coach Mike Korton said is a certainty.
“When you listen to Pete Ockuly talk to the players, and in our leadership groups, it just shows,” Korton said. “I know these players will play their rear off for him. They will give him everything they’ve got on that field. He’s got that personality that you want to follow, and he really knows how to coach.”