MOUNT VERNON — It has been quite some time since the Mount Vernon football team set foot on a field for a state tournament game.
As in 11 years.
The last time the Bulldogs appeared in a state tournament — 2007 — they were defeated by Ferndale.
Mount Vernon’s only other state appearances were in 2000, 1984 and 1975, with their lone state playoff win coming in 1984.
On Friday night, the Bulldogs will finally be able to add to their list of state tournament appearances.
“We knew this year was going to be good,” said Mount Vernon’s Antonio Polanco, a senior fullback and linebacker. “We had a bunch of seniors leading us. We’ve been playing for a long time in this program and we finally got all back together up here at the varsity level.
“We were all business from the get-go. A bunch of us were in the weight room this summer and then we’ve just been out here on the practice field day after day getting after it and it’s been a lot of fun.”
Fun wasn’t a word thrown around much before second-year coach Nic Vasilchek arrived. And winning certainly wasn’t in the vocabulary of those associated with the team.
“I think we all kind of had this feeling deep down inside us, that we were better,” said Tristin Willis, a senior offensive and defensive lineman.
Vasilchek managed to work his magic, and the Bulldogs have improved at an impressive clip.
“He (Vasilchek) really helped bring that will to win out and exploit it,” Willis said. “He saw our hunger and that we wanted to win.”
In Vasilchek’s inaugural season last year, Mount Vernon ended a 21-game losing streak and finished 4-6.
Thus far this season, the Bulldogs are 8-2.
“This team was an embarrassment,” Polanco said. “You would walk down the hallways and kids would be laughing, talking crap. It would be game day at school and everyone was down, asking if we were going to win. It was more of a joke than a serious question. Everyone knew we were about to get rolled over.”
When he took the job, Vasilchek knew what he was getting into and welcomed the opportunity.
“The only way was up,” he said. “Obviously, I had been around losing programs before and I just knew the one way to fix it was to make football fun again and get some energy going, get kids excited, give them hope.”
But how did he turn the Bulldogs into a winner?
He arrived with a game plan and instituted at the first team meeting. He has never wavered from his plan.
“From day one, we never talked about losing, never talked about failure,” Vasilchek said. “What we did talk about was winning, going to the playoffs and winning a state championship. We immediately started talking about huge things that hadn’t been talked about around here for awhile.”
Next on the game plan was a routine that would not change no matter the day or week, win or lose.
Vasilchek said he was told consistency was lacking in the program.
“Every single day was going to be the exact same way and we were never going to change,” he said. “They had a hard time with that because they had some traditions and some things they were used to.”
The Bulldogs simply replaced old traditions with new ones.
“We got rid of the old ones and that really helped,” Willis said. “Those types of things really helped fuel those fires of winning.”
Traditions now include the team being led onto the field by a player carrying an American flag.
Then there is the program’s victory flag and Christmas Monday.
The victory flag flies below the American flag at the stadium. It’s flown Friday following a win and lowered Thursday. Why Thursday?
“We lower it and talk about what it’s going to take to hang it back up,” Vasilchek said. “The first couple times we did it, the kids thought it was kind of weird, but now they are really into it. It’s theirs.”
Christmas Monday is about as interesting a tradition as they come and is celebrated only after victories.
“They get sledgehammers and big, gawdy chains and wrestling belts and we have all kinds of awards we pass out,” Vasilchek said. “They only get them when we win. When we win, they really look forward to getting that stuff. We give the dog bone stickers out, so when you do something good, you get a bone.”
The bottom line is making the game fun again by playing music during practices every day except Thursday. Thursday there is no music because it’s Discipline Day.
“Discipline Day, we’re focused,” Vasilchek said. “Every other day we act the fool and have a good time. But not Thursdays.”
And football at Mount Vernon has become fun again. Of course, being successful will help with that.
“When you are winning, you have that warm feeling inside you,” Polanco said. “When it’s cold out here, you are still warm. You have more to go after. You want it to keep going. Everyone is happier. It makes everything easier. Things go smoothly. And the bus rides home after wins are always good.”