No coach leads his team into the playoffs amid more twists of fate than Perry Hall football coach Keith Robinson.
First, the Gators needed a little help just to make the Class 4A North regional playoffs. After Hereford upset the Gators last week, 34-31 in overtime, they ended up with the fourth-seeded spot only because a Westminster forfeit eliminated the Owls. Now, in Friday night’s semifinal at Poly, Robinson will face his mentor, Roger Wrenn, for the first time. As if that weren’t enough, a Perry Hall win would mean that Robinson ends Wrenn’s career, because the Engineers’ coach will retire at the end of the season after 40 years of coaching in Baltimore City.
Robinson’s coaching career began with Wrenn at Patterson 16 years ago and Friday his No. 13 Gators (8-2) travel to meet Wrenn’s No. 5 Engineers (10-0) at 7 p.m. In four years at Perry Hall, Robinson, 40, has taken the team to the playoffs three times. The Gators coach, who also spent four years at Overlea, is a Long Island native and played football at Walt Whitman High in Huntington, N.Y. as well as one year at Cortland State.
This fall, the Gators finished second in Baltimore County’s Class 4A-3A Division behind undefeated and No. 10 Catonsville, the second-seeded team in the 4A North region.
As this week’s football Coachspeak guest, Robinson answers five questions about his team, the wild finish to the regular season and his impending faceoff with Wrenn.
What has been the driving force behind this team’s success?
We’ve got a good group of seniors who came in this year off a playoff loss to Urbana last year which was eventual state champion. I think that fueled their off-season workouts. They were real strong off-season and we came into this season with some real talented seniors. We’ve kind of established ourselves as a a fast-paced explosive offensive team. I think last year we averaged 35 points a game and this year we’re right around that same number. We pride ourselves on the no-huddle system we run. We like to go at a fast pace. We have the ability to throw and run. We’ve got a good quarterback and we’ve got a couple good running backs and some good receivers, so we have a good collection of kids on offense who can put points on the board. I think that’s what’s become our signature, our high-scoring offense.
How disappointing was it to lose to Hereford in the season finale and how do you think these kids will bounce back from that?
It was extremely disappointing. We knew the (Baltimore) county championship was out of our reach due to the fact that Catonsville was going to go 10-0. Not only did we want to finish 9-1, but Hereford is a game that we’ve circled on our schedule. For the last bunch of years it’s been Week 10 and they’ve had our number for the last few years. It’s a game that we were up for. Due to the fact that we had some early turnovers, we fell behind, but the kids fought back. When regulation ended and it was tied, I felt like we had new life. It didn’t turn out quite as well in overtime. It hurt, but then I broke the news to the kids that we were still in the playoffs. Heading into that game all along we were telling them they needed to be 9-1 which would have been the case if Westminster had not had to forfeit that game, which allowed us to get into the playoffs. I didn’t tell the kids about that until the Hereford game was over. I didn’t want that to factor into their mind set going in. I didn’t want them to think, “Hey we could possibly lose this game and still get in,” so I told them right after the game when I got that information confirmed. I think that gave us a little boost. Some of them, when the game ended, thought that the football careers for a lot of seniors were over and that’s a tough thing to feel. That’s a tough reality to swallow when you lose in overtime. And to consider that at 8-2 you might be out. I think that gave us a little bit of a boost going into this week.
You’re having a great season but you did get into the playoffs because Westminster had to forfeit a game. What have you told the players about this second chance?
I kind of piggyback that with the way we won two weeks ago at Woodlawn when it looked like game was over and we had lost. We ended up winning in the last couple of seconds. And I said, “Here we are now, we’ve got a second chance that we really didn’t expect due to of the Westminster situation, so maybe we need to believe this is meant to be.” Special seasons often involve a little bit of luck. Maybe this all happened for a reason and you have to make the most of it, because it’s going to be over quickly. I always remind them especially as we get toward the end of the season that this will be gone in the blink of an eye. All the memories and all the great times you had with your buddies will be gone quickly so enjoy it for what it is. Understand that it was due to Westminster’s unfortunate situation, but we’ve been given a second chance and let’s make the most of it.
Is the Class 4A North region the toughest in the state this year?
I don’t know if it’s the toughest in the state, but it’s the toughest the 4A North has been since I’ve been coaching. It’s certainly the toughest 4A North division. That’s another thing that we told our guys from the beginning as the playoff picture started to clarify and we realized we had a good shot. We reminded them that whoever does come out of this region is going to be battle tested and should be ready to play well in the playoffs, because our schedule is pretty brutal when you look at playing not only Hereford but Franklin and Eastern Tech, Milford Mill. We played St. Paul’s for our open date early in the season. We played Parkville, who bounced back at the end this year, and you throw in Catonsville which put together a machine this year. It’s a tough schedule. I told the guys Friday night that despite the fact that we’re in due to a forfeit, 8-2 in this division, I think, earns you the right to go to the playoffs.
What emotions are you feeling going into the game against Poly? It’s your first chance to coach against your mentor, but you could be the one who ends Coach Wrenn’s career.
Obviously, I’m excited and at the same time, I’ll be honored to take the field against Coach Wrenn. I learned pretty much everything I know about coaching from him, so it’ll be exciting, but it’ll be a little nerve wracking. Throw on top of that the fact that if we do win, he’s done. We’ll worry about that once the game starts. I’ll try to beat him and he’ll try to beat me and our guys. It’s a pretty unique situation. I ran into (former Aberdeen coach) John Siemsen the other day at my daughter’s soccer game – my daughter was playing his daughter -- and he was telling me he and Tony Ruocco, who coaches at Kenwood and we all coached together with Roger, said they were going to go watch all of Roger’s games for as far as he goes in the playoffs just to kind of pay their respects. I told them hopefully it will be just a one-game series for them. (Laughs) It’s funny because when I was Roger's assistant, I at times watched from afar how he did things and I think some other things just kind of sank in through osmosis, but I’ve had people tell me that I remind them of him just the way I stand on the sidelines and my body language. It’s going to be strange, but I understand I’ll be going up against one of the best ever. We’ve got to be on our A game. I know they’re going to have us well scouted. We exchanged film this past weekend, talked a couple times in the last couple weeks. As the playoff picture was clearing up, we agreed to help each other out if one of us did make it in. I think at that point, we weren’t sure we would have a chance to play each other. I think there will be a bunch of different emotions that come out Friday night.
Does the football team do the Bernie?
The football team does not do the Bernie. I didn’t even know what the Bernie was until last week. Surprisingly, the football team did not get too involved with that (the decision by the Perry Hall principal to have the boys soccer team forfeit its playoff season for doing the Bernie dance near an opponent’s sideline and its fans – a decision that was quickly reversed allowing the Gators to play on and reach this weekend’s state semifinals.). Fortunately, the day the decision was reverse with the big press conference, the kids did not have school that day, so we kind of stayed on the periphery of all that. But I think the right decision was made.