Chris Vandersypen crossed his legs, leaned back slightly in his office chair and exhaled. The first-year coach of Southeast High School is acutely aware of the problems of his new football program.
The Spartans ended last season with 29 players, then lost 14 to graduation. The participation rate in non-mandatory summer workouts is so low that the sound of weights clanking sounds like the beat of a song.
That, along with the fact that Oklahoma City's youth football league has all but disappeared, presents significant problems for the Southeast football program.
None of that is stopping the new coach from approaching his first season as a Spartan with optimism.
“It's a challenge with very good possibilities,” Vandersypen said.
Marguess Smith, the team's standout offensive guard, is one of those possibilities.
He comes to weightlifting sessions. He wants to play. He wants his team to see success and his teammates to follow in the footsteps of those who became better people through playing Spartan football, like former Oklahoma All-American Gerald McCoy, who now plays defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But he understands some of the issues the program faces.
“Kids growing up and playing football here doesn't happen like in Edmond and Moore,” Smith said. “I played Little League ball in Oklahoma City but after that league shut down, everyone younger than me just slowed down on playing football.”
Then there are Southeast's recent struggles. The Spartans went 2-8 last season, 2-8 in 2011 and 3-7 in 2010. The last time Southeast went to the playoffs was 2003.
Vandersypen is having to seek kids out, but he thinks better equipment and uniforms may help build confidence, which he hopes could build the success that would increase participation.
That's the short-term goal. The long-term one is to get back to being a competitive team within Class 5A.
“You've got to do that to win a state title,” Vandersypen said.
He's working toward those goals by the way he treats his athletes. He's trying to be more flexible.
“There are too many options that allow them to be able to walk away from football,” he said. “I'm trying to be part-father, part-brother, part-guardian and part-coach.”
He calls his coaching a combination of old school — this will be his 20th year in some capacity as a coach in the state — and new.
“I want them to be excited to practice hard but also not be afraid of them joking around a bit,” he said.
Lack of participation is not a new problem at Southeast, though.
“Even when we were fairly successful in the early 2000s, it wasn't much better than 50 players, but never as many as other teams that carry 55-60,” said former Spartans coach Michael Branch, who resigned last winter. “We normally carried between 30 and 45.”
However, Branch did admit that last season's team finished with lower numbers than usual.
None of that fazes Smith. His coach may feel the need to seek larger numbers, but Smith seems to be OK with a small dedicated group.
“It can be frustrating,” he said, “but you only need 11.”