Doug Nisenson is having a rebound year to remember. After going 3-7 in his first year as the head football coach at ThunderRidge, he has the Grizzlies playing at a level not seen at the school since 2015. At 7-1 overall, ThunderRidge has gotten gritty wins over teams like Fairview and Highlands Ranch which is good enough to come in at No. 8 in the Class 5A CHSAANow.com poll. The Grizzlies are also sitting at No. 14 in the RPI. Giving up just over 14 points per game is a vast defensive improvement from last year. In 2017 they gave up over 23 points per contest and finished with an overall record of 3-7. After more than doubling their win total from last year, Nisenson has the Grizzlies rolling and is this week's Denver Broncos High School Coach of the Week.
Years as head coach: 2 (10-8)
Years at ThunderRidge: 2 (10-8, 7-1 this season)
Previous stops: Assistant O-line coach Tempe High School, Tempe, Ariz. (2008); Offensive/defensive assistant Sandra Day O'Connor High School, Phoenix, Ariz. (2009); 2010 O-line coach Northern Durham, Durham, N.C. (2010); Assistant coach Millbrook High School, Holly, N.C. (2011); ThunderRidge defensive coordinator (2013-16); ThunderRidge head coach (2017-present).
Q: What got you into coaching?
Nisenson: It was coaches that I had in the past and the experience I had. I played at ThunderRidge, I played for Joe Johnson and he and several other coaches who were on staff then, and actually a couple who still coach for me now which is a really cool experience, they really just made a difference in my life.
It was a great experience that helped me become a better person when I was a kid. What got me into it was missing the game, wanting to have that kind of impact on other people, or maybe create a culture and environment where people got to say, "I'm so happy I got a chance to be a part of that."
Q: What is it about your coaching style that you think the kids respond to the best?
Nisenson: I have a lot of passion and a lot of energy. Today in this day in age, kids need to know that you care. They need to know that you care about them as people before you care about them as football players. I really think that they feed off the energy and they need that a little bit. I think they need the reassurance that they can go do the things you're asking them to do. That's been the thing here is building a culture of belief, of putting the work in. I shouldn't say building it, I should say get back to it. Obviously this school has had a lot of success in the past and it's fallen off a bit but we're getting back to that now.
Q: Did you change anything about your approach after last year?
Nisenson: No. We really didn't. Even at 3-7, we felt things were going in the right direction. One of the things I was really proud of last season was going into our last game and we were 3-6 and out of the playoffs. If you had come to one of our practices and not known anything about us, you wouldn't have known that. That's what I was so proud of. In years past we were very intrinsically motivated. We had kids asking how many games did we think we had to win to get into the playoffs, things like that. The focus that I've tried to put our team on is how do we make sure that we're competing against ourselves every day. It doesn't matter what are record is. It doesn't matter who we're playing. Our goal every week is to compete against ourselves and make our best better. That's the foundation of our culture.
Q: You've had a balance of comfortable wins and a few dogfights this year, do the kinds of wins matter when it comes to getting your team ready for the postseason?
Nisenson: Absolutely. It always helps to have an opportunity to be in close games. We played really poorly against Doherty. We had over 500 yards of offense, we just turned the ball over five times. You would've liked to get that poor game experience with a close win, it just didn't turn out our way. But it was a great experience for our kids because we haven't had a ton of success the last couple of years. You remember the ThunderRidge of 2013 and prior. You're talking about multiple state titles, several semifinal appearances, always fighting for a conference championship. That's not what this team knew of the last couple of years. I think it was important for us to be 4-0 and have people talking about us and not go out and play to our capabilities. Then we could understand and learn that you have to do that all the time. It's really easy to focus on having to do better when you're losing because you're losing. You have to do better. You have to focus on how to do better when you're winning as well. It's just as important. I think that was an important experience for us. Would we have liked to get the two-point conversion at the end of the game and learned that lesson on a 29-28 win? Absolutely. But the other thing we always talk about is that the scoreboard doesn't matter and what's already happened doesn't matter. It's all about responding to what's happened and how do we do our jobs so that the scoreboard and the win/loss columns work themselves out if we do those things. That's really been our message. We've gotten to experience that in large wins, in tight wins and in one tight loss. It hurt our kids bad because we feel like it shouldn't have happened and it's been a motivator for us.
Q: We're very close to talking about you being an 8-0 team. What does it say about your players in the way they responded to the Doherty loss?
Nisenson: One of the most valuable things was that we had not been in that situation where we were being talked about a lot, where we were ranked highly and all those types of things. We had to experience that a bit. And our kids have come back out and recommitted. I felt like that week specifically, we didn't practice at the same level. We just didn't. It wasn't the same. We didn't have the same energy. I think our kids got caught up in that we were 4-0, they were 0-4 and they got beat down by a team that we beat. They thought they could go out there, put it in cruise control and beat them. It was a good experience to get in that anybody can get you if you don't put your best game out on the field. Since then we've gotten back to high energy at practice, much better focus and getting back to the roots of what we've talked about going back to the beginning of last year when I took over. As you can see, it's kind of paid off for us again.
Q: Have you found yourself in a position (either this year or in previous years) where you can almost see the impact you're having on a kid, especially from a life mindset rather than a football one?
Nisenson: Absolutely and I don't think it's just me. I think it's our entire coaching staff. One of the things I'm most proud of since I've been here is the improvement of the academics in our players. Not just how they're performing in terms of their grades, but how they are in class. I'm starting to get emails from teachers about how awesome the kids are, how they're sitting in the front of the room, how they're participating and asking questions. There was a lot of cleaning up that had to be done on that side of things. There is still work to be done, but we've had a lot of improvement. I'm really proud of that because I believe you can't sit in class and have no discipline and no effort and expect yourself to give it on Friday night when you're exhausted and need something. If you haven't practiced that discipline and that effort all week in everything you do, you're not going to be able to do it.
Story: Dan Mohrmann/CHSAANow.com
Photo: Steve Oathout