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Turning it Around

When first-time Head Coach Sean Sandora took over the Dundalk (Md.) High School program in 2012, no one was forecasting the team to compete for a state championship just three years later. The Owls had won only one playoff game in over a decade and often struggled with academic ineligibility. But in 2015, Dundalk had a near perfect regular season, finishing 9-1, and went on to play for the 3A Maryland state title at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. 

The Owls lost that contest but still produced Dundalk’s best season ever, notching 12 wins, their first state championship appearance, and first regional title since 2002. And Sandora, the 2015 Baltimore Sun All-Metro Football Coach of the Year and NFL Ravens High School Coach of the Year, says the momentum has only just begun. With a heightened focus on offseason strength training and a hands-on approach with players, the 33-year-old coach is methodically building his program and developing his athletes into college-bound leaders.  

In 2014, your squad went 4-6. What accounts for the turnaround in 2015?

During the 2014 season, we were hit with an injury bug, and we had to bring up a lot of younger kids to start on varsity for the first time as sophomores and juniors. While that was tough, it gave them the experience to hit the ground running this year. Coming into 2015, we had 20 seniors, and it was their leadership and commitment in the weightroom and classroom that set up our success.        

Once the season started, the kids really dedicated themselves to the game and continued to improve each week. We had some tough contests early on, so they also faced adversity and overcame it. We lost the county championship game against the defending state champions, Franklin High, but we learned from the loss, and it got our kids refocused to make a deep playoff run. 

You played Franklin again in the regional championship and won. What did you do differently the second time around? 

In that first game, I think the kids weren’t ready for the moment. After the game, we knew that we hadn’t put our best foot forward. So we were really eager to play them again. The week of practice leading up to the regional championship was one of the best weeks we had all year. We were very focused. We then executed a lot better the second time around than we did the first.

What did you learn from the 2014 season, when injury got in the way of success?

I learned that sometimes you have to be patient. Our record was 4-6, but towards the end of the season, we played some very competitive teams, and in those games, we were in it until the last two minutes. A play here or there, and we could have won. Even though our record didn’t show it, I knew we had a lot of talent. 

That need to be patient continued into the 2015 season, when our starting quarterback went down with a thumb injury. A junior, Darrius Sample, who had never played varsity before, came in to take his place. I knew I had to be patient and let Darrius play the game and learn. He was going to make mistakes, and I had to build him up and show him that I was there to support him. 

What did you say to your players after losing the state championship game?

We were all upset because we had put so much time and effort into the season. I said to them, “I know this hurts now, I know it’s frustrating, even devastating, but we’ve got to realize what we did this season. We were a team that no one thought would be successful, and we proved a lot of people wrong. We did something that had never been done in the history of our school.” 

I reminded our seniors of the legacy that they were leaving behind. We now have great attendance in the weightroom and kids who are motivated to get back to the championships. That’s all a result of the seniors and what they committed themselves to the last four years. 

What’s your coaching philosophy?

I’m a firm believer in the concept of the student-athlete. I want these kids to go to college, and I know that they have to take care of business in the classroom first. I’m a very demanding and hands-on coach, and my assistant coaches are as well. We like to build them from the ground up. We want them to have a strong academic base and a strength and conditioning base. Once they have that, we’re able to teach them the game of football.

How have you pushed them academically?

In my first year as Head Coach, I started an academic support program for the football team, and after the school saw its success, it adopted the program for all athletes. Now, if you’re a student-athlete at Dundalk, every two weeks, you ask your teachers to fill out an academic progress report that you turn in to your coaches. If a kid’s struggling, we set aside time for them to meet with teachers or to make up work, and have them attend tutoring sessions and study halls. 

There is also a reward component. An academic liaison calculates individual and team GPAs, and at the end of each season, the team with the highest overall GPA gets a team dinner set up by the booster club. There are individual prizes as well. 

The main thing it does is that it gets the kids thinking about their grades. It requires them to be constantly aware of their progress. It also gives them an opportunity to interact with their teachers, which kids don’t always want to do. 

We’ve always had talent in the building, but it was difficult to get the talent on the field. Now the kids are motivated not only to stay eligible academically but to go to college—and they know they need a good GPA to do that. We also encourage our players to either be multi-sport athletes or do offseason weight training, so it gives us the opportunity to stay on top of them about their grades year-round. 

What do you find most challenging about coaching?

Getting younger kids to buy in. Coming in as ninth graders, they’re a bit immature, and they’re not able to see the larger picture of what we want to accomplish. Also, they often don’t believe in themselves. But we’ve found that once we get some of them on board, their friends will follow. Then we stay on top of them with our academic support program and by encouraging them in the weightroom. 

It’s great to watch these guys develop from ninth to 12th grade. And I take pride in sending players to college. Our entire senior class is going to graduate this year, and a majority are going to have the opportunity to play football at the next level. I know we played a part in doing something to better their lives. That’s pretty much why I got into coaching, because I wanted to help young people go somewhere and do something.

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