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Broncos High School Coach of the Week: Matt Van Praag

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Throughout the grind of a sports season, teams can face any number of challenges, both on and off the field.

For the 3A Evergreen Cougars, led by head coach Matt Van Praag, they faced the unimaginable on Oct. 6 when assistant coach Tom Poholsky, who was the father of starting QB Tommy Poholsky III, passed away unexpectedly. Poholsky had coached many of the players on the team since they first started playing in the fourth grade. 

Prior to Coach Poholsky's passing, the team was in the midst of one of the best starts in program history, sitting at 5-0 at the midway point. After, the team needed to decide whether or not they wanted to continue playing at all.

They ultimately decided to play to honor their late coach, but saw some struggles on the field while going through the grieving process off of it. They dropped the next two games prior to a meeting with Lewis-Palmer this past Friday.

The Cougars came out firing on all cylinders for that game, including Poholsky III who threw for five TDs and also added a rushing score. In the end, Evergreen was back in the win column with a 53-12 victory. After the game, the Lewis-Palmer staff purchased pizza and shared a meal with Evergreen at midfield to honor Coach Poholsky.

Van Praag has earned Broncos High School Coach of the Week honors for his dedication to the support of his student-athletes, staff, and community through this tragedy, but he wants everyone to know it was not a one man effort.

"While I am the face of our program and am proud to accept this award from the Denver Broncos, our players and staff earned this recognition for enduring the past few weeks with courage, love, and strength, which ultimately represents what I believe this award stands for."

Those wanting to support the Poholsky family through this difficult time can visit the GoFundMe page.

The Broncos Coach of the Week is selected in partnership with CHSAA.

Matt Van Praag bio

Years as Evergreen head coach (record): Second Year (10-5)

Overall head coaching record: 10-5

Coaching resume: Coral Springs Christian, Coral Springs, Fla.; Evergreen High School; Mountain Youth Football Association

Quotes from Matt Van Praag

Why do you coach the way that you coach?

Van Praag: My life experiences influence my day-to-day interactions in every role that I play. As a business owner overseeing 50+ employees, I learned that building relationships is the number-one success indicator. I carry this same philosophy into my everyday coaching by treating each player, each school employee, and parent with the utmost respect while developing personal relationships with all of them. Coaching from a place of trust and love guides my daily decisions on the field as I look to impact the lives of our student-athletes. I hope to use the game of football to create positive change in our community through our athletes and their families. I was lucky enough to have coaches in High School who approached the game from a similar viewpoint, and the impact on my life from that approach is something I deem necessary to pass on to others.

What do you think it's like to be coached by you?

Van Praag: I believe that our players trust me implicitly. This trust leads to a lighter environment where our players are free to be themselves. There is an understanding of our expectations, and the consequences for not meeting those expectations are both consistent and fair. In return, the players have the freedom to play with their style, which allows them to feel secure. I have high expectations when it comes to effort both on and off the field. Failure to meet my expectations continuously can make for some difficult ramifications. As a result, certain players struggle under my watch when they are unwilling to strive to adhere to our rules. However, most of my players are consistent in their behavior and effort, which leads to a fun and fulfilling environment.

What has been your favorite memory from being the HC at Evergreen so far?

Van Praag: I have been lucky enough to be around the Evergreen program since 2011. On the field, we endured both successful and down years, but along the way, I've created long-lasting friendships with our coaching staff and our players. Aside from watching my kids (Declan, 11, and Callum, 7) interact with our players over the years, two unique on-field experiences stand out. The first of those experiences was in September of 2013 vs. Northridge in what we dubbed the "flood game." Around kickoff, the skies opened up and dumped 8-16 inches of rain in a 6-hour span which ultimately led to a level 1 evacuation for Evergreen residents. Our turf field ended up bubbling from all the water sinking into it. Every step the players took splashed like a scene from Singing in the Rain. Our center begged us to stay out of shotgun because the ball was so soggy. Coming from South Florida, where we have torrential, I had never seen anything like what we experienced that night. After the game, we began preparations to house the Northridge team in our players' houses because their bus was having trouble leaving Evergreen due to flooding and road closures. Ultimately, the bus was able to get them home safely.

My second greatest experience occurred this past weekend vs. Lewis-Palmer. On October 6, our football community suddenly lost a great friend and coach in Tom Poholsky. His son, Tommy Poholsky III, is our current starting quarterback. As our team reeled from the loss of our coach and mentor through funeral services and viewings, Tommy stayed true to his character and asked his teammates to honor his father simply by playing. After two difficult losses amidst the chaos of grief, Tommy threw five touchdown passes and had a rushing score vs. Lewis-Palmer. Watching Tommy overcome his suffering with that type of performance was incredibly inspiring and honorable. However, the Lewis-Palmer staff and admin moved me the most by purchasing pizza for our players at our home field to honor our fallen coach. Watching their players and our players share a meal at midfield after a tough battle will always stick with me as an accurate picture of character and sportsmanship.

What has it been like for your team to be 6-2 at this point in the season?

Van Praag: I am in my second year as Head Coach at Evergreen, and my first two years could not have been filled with more chaos between COVID-19 and the passing of one of our coaches. To be 6-2 after losing 19 starters from a year ago and facing all the challenges from the last month is a testament to our players and our staff. We are an inexperienced team who has been forced to grow up quickly. I am so proud of our entire athletics program including our parents, booster club, admin and support staff for keeping us afloat and focusing on the kids. We have a saying that we celebrate every victory regardless of performance because winning is difficult. My hope is to continue to grow as a coach and to watch our program develop into an annual contender.

What did Coach Poholsky mean to the players, the program, and the Evergreen community?

Van Praag: Coach Poholsky played multiple roles in our community. These included our current sitting Booster Club President, the former President of the Board for our Youth Football Association, a Youth Football Coach for five years, and our current Offensive Coordinator and Wide Receivers Coach. Many of our players have played under Tom since the 4th grade. He is responsible for the mentorship of so many of our current players during that time. The outpouring of love to the Poholsky family is precisely what makes Evergreen an incredible community. We lost a man who made it his mission to use football as his conduit to help young people develop into amazing older people. He represented everything right about coaching, and I considered him a friend and mentor. He believed in every player and fought like crazy to give opportunities to everyone willing to put in the time and effort. He molded this philosophy during his days as a starting quarterback at Iowa, and the Evergreen football program is built on that foundation. While he is no longer with us, his spirit will continue to live on as we watch our players graduate and become incredible contributors to society.

What can you say about this team rallying, continuing to play, and now winning since the passing of Coach Poholsky?

Van Praag: When Tom passed away, we needed to decide on if we should continue to play or not. In meeting with the Poholsky family, they believed that honoring Tom by playing the game he loved was the right decision regardless of the outcome. For three weeks, our entire practice schedule and routine have been interrupted. We have yet to have a whole week of practice in our new-normal environment. 

I have watched our players organize a movie outing the day after finding out about Tom. I've seen teenage boys openly grieve with tears rolling down their faces. And I watched a young man in Tommy overcome it all and perform to the best of his ability after losing his best friend and Father. 

The growth of these kids over the last three weeks is inspiring. We prepared and played uninspired football for two weeks because the game was taking its proper place on the priority list. However, the glimmer of hope began showing near the end of last week, and our passion as a program returned to where it was before Tom's passing. Our entire community should be proud of the moral character shown throughout these challenging times. Still, our kids deserve the most credit and respect for going about their grieving process healthily with togetherness and perspective. 

So, while I am the face of our program and am proud to accept this award from the Denver Broncos, our players and staff earned this recognition for enduring the past few weeks with courage, love, and strength, which ultimately represents what I believe this award stands for.

Story Written By: Dan Whitaker/CHSAANow.com

Photo Credit: Matt Van Praag

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