By Joseph Santoliquito
PHILADELPHIA, PA (CBS) — Look at the line of toes, and you’ll notice something each time St. Joseph’s Prep coach Gabe Infante addresses his players before and after games and practices. To a player, their feet are almost perfectly aligned from one end to the other, all one inch off the yard line the team stands behind. It’s those little things that Infante stresses to his team, the minute details that cover everything from standing together after games, to Olamide Zaccheaus immediately knowing to fall in the end zone after intercepting a desperation pass that clinched The Prep’s second-straight PIAA Class AAAA state championship.
Infante took on an ambitious national schedule this season. He saw his team, a consensus preseason No. 1 in the area, falter to a 1-3 start and bore the brunt of the doubters. But back in August, back when he was drilling the code of the “little things” into his player’s heads and with his coaching staff, it was all about landing and playing well in December, when it mattered. When winning another state championship served as a reward for all of the trial-and-error pain it took to get there. It’s a team that had doubts. The Hawks thought that they were better than they were, and were stung.
It was Infante that pulled them together. Take a look at Hawks’ quarterback Jack Clements. About the only thing similar from his September film to December is the number on his jersey. Infante instilled a level of confidence in Clements that transformed him into a commanding presence in the state championship.
So for the second-straight year, it’s why Infante is the area’s Coach of the Year—and for more than what his team did on the field.
The Hawks finished the season riding the crest of a 10-game winning streak to close the year 11-3. The Hawks are the two-time Catholic League Class AAAA, District 12 and now state champions. But it’s more than the wins and losses that makes Infante special to the program. It’s the countless number of off hours he spends with his players about issues that go beyond the football team. It’s being there for offensive guard Shane Davis, whose father was tragically murdered his freshman year. It’s being there for his players when they have a question about a college, or a class.
“Coach Infante is more than a football coach to every player on this team,” said Penn State-bound John Reid, the Hawks’ star defensive back. “When I got hurt against [Bartram in the District 12 championship], he was the one that came back to the hospital with me and my family to make sure everything was okay. Ask any senior leaving on this team—after they graduate, I know they’ll always think of him and call him if they have a problem. That’s the kind of man he is.”
Then Reid laughed.
“We’ve reached a point where we’ve heard everything from Coach Infante,” he said. “But the thing I’ll always keep hearing in my head, and you even hear all the assistant coaches saying it, it’s the little things we need to pay attention to. It can be anything you do, beyond just football. It could be the smallest thing ever, and you think you know, you know, and forget it. But it comes up and you find that it’s totally true. I’m not kidding when I say this, I can’t even describe the impact Coach Infante has had on my life. It’s more than just football. There are so many things and I’m a better person, we’re all better people because this man stepped into our lives. I’ll always take his saying with me, ‘Football is what you do, it’s not who you are.’ Coach Infante is a special man.”
As for Infante, he doesn’t want to hear it. The accolades go through one ear and out of the other. He’s vehement when it comes to promoting and protecting his players, and he refuses to allow any pictures of himself, preferring instead to have a player or a coach with him. There’s been more than a few times his day will begin at nine in the morning and he won’t be driving home from Prep until 10 at night.
When he heard he was coach of the year again, he deferred the honor to others closest to him.
“Here’s what I learned this year is every team has a life expectancy of one year, and I realized this team had to mature in its own way, and that perspective is very powerful,” Infante said. “I’ll never make that mistake again. But listen, this is not about me. You want the ‘Coach of the Year,’ my wife, Karina. She’s the ‘Wife and Coach of the Year.’ Karina is my rock. She’s everything in the world to me. My staff is the staff of the year. We’re not here talking about success and two-straight state championships without my wife and without my staff. I have the greatest people in the world around me. These kids wake me up in the morning, and they know that. They don’t want to let me down, and I don’t want to let them down. It’s special—and something that I won’t ever forget.”
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