YUCCA VALLEY — The junior varsity Yucca Valley High School football team has pounded out of the gates with two dominating wins in the preseason, but coach Troy Slayden is focused more on the players’ characters than the count on the scoreboard.
The boys beat the Chaffey Tigers of Ontario 28-6 on Trojan Field Aug. 23, then traveled to Victorville to play to a blowout 40-0 win against Excelsior Christian Charter School Aug. 28.
“I’m pretty proud of those boys,” Slayden said in a phone interview Thursday.
“I feel very fortunate to have a good group of kids with me for sure.”
The offensive and defensive lines did a fantastic job, the coach said. “Everything in the game starts there and unfortunately they don’t get the attention and recognition they deserve. … The wins and losses start right there in my front line.”
Slayden said his emphasis for the kids is to be positive with each other — “no negativity on the field.”
Wednesday’s 40-0 score wasn’t what he wanted to focus on — “I don’t like 40-0 blowouts much. I don’t think the kids learn much from it, I don’t learn much from it. I’ve been in those situations and there’s nothing good about that.”
What he was most proud of was the character his kids showed.
“One of the things people in the stands mentioned to me from yesterday’s game was, ‘I can’t believe how many times your kids reached down to help up the kid they just tackled, or patted them on the back,’” the coach said. “You don’t see that in football all the time.”
Others noticed the Trojans’ behavior, too. Assistant Principal Chris Fore posted on Facebook a message he got from the Excelsior athletic director, complimenting the team on their class and sportsmanship.
“Several times I saw players make tackles and help our player up,” the AD wrote.
“At game’s end I was dragging a heavy generator up the hill and two of your players ran over and helped push it up the hill. Kudos for a class program.”
Slayden says one of his most important goals is to get his players to be good people. He encourages them to praise each other and help each other learn and watching their behavior over the seasons, he believes it’s working.
“This year I’ve gotten to see some of those kids change,” he said. “I’ve noticed kids that came out last year who wanted to fight on the field — fight each other — that’s not happening anymore.
“Honestly, I think I see kids changing for the positive.”
A volunteer coach, Slayden played football at Yucca Valley High School and graduated in 1990.
“I know what a lot of these kids need because I was in their shoes at one time, so I enjoy being a part of their lives,” he said.
In Yucca Valley, the median household income is $44,428 and 21 percent of residents are living in poverty by federal standards. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that over 30 percent of households live on $25,000 or less per year. Slayden is mindful of the economic and social realities of many of his players.
“My parents were super poor, we didn’t have anything, but I went to college and now I’m doing pretty well,” said Slayden, who is director of information technology for the school district.
“I want to show them just because you come from this low-economic area, doesn’t mean you can’t go anywhere.”
Modeling and talking about hard work and dedication is part of his process as a coach. “I feel like sports is a way to keep those kids focused, keep them on the right path,” he said.
He wants his Trojans to learn this lesson: “When you don’t have the opportunity some people do, and you don’t have everything at your fingertips, sometimes you have to work harder for it, and you’re going to have to be more dedicated.”
His emphasis on positive attitudes and team support is working.
“I do think that culture on the team has made a difference,” he said. “Our kids care about each other and want to protect each other, and I think that positivity goes a long way on the field.”
He doesn’t want to see kids tear each other down; he believes that’s bad for everyone on the team.
“You take a kid who’s an excellent athlete and gives 110 percent and you start having that attitude, I’ve seen them become a 70 percent player. Mentally they become destructive for themselves,” he explained.
“Making mistakes is not a bad thing. Making mistakes and learning from them is necessary. We all make mistakes and fail once in a while,” he said. “It’s about getting up and saying, ‘This is why I failed. I’m going to fix that and be better.’”
It’s a lesson he wants his kids to take with them on the football field and in whatever path they walk afterward.
“I feel a lot of things we do out there are not specific to football, but life lessons.”