Nobody will ever know for sure just how close the Bassett High School football program came to going the way of the dinosaur in 2011.
But with just 16 players on the varsity roster at the end of a 1-9 campaign, it doesn’t take a genius to realize things were about as bleak as they could get.
Enter Hector Spathias.
Today, thanks to Spathias, the Olympians are a thriving program, one that was a coin flip away from making the playoffs last season. The roster now has 50 players between varsity and junior varsity and although the stunning turnaround hasn’t come easily, things are clearly looking up.
“I’m a teacher on campus and they knew I had coached football before,” Spathias thinking back to how he took on the challenge of turning things around. “They would call me in and say ‘You know the kids here, you can relate to them, can you coach the football team?’
“And I would say there’s no way I’m going to coach here, there’s no support here. But when you have these kids in your class, you feel bad. You want to give them a fair shot on the football field.”
Spathias took the job and despite being offered a situation where he would be allowed to attend only a few practices a week because he had kids of his own playing sports in high school, he declined to do anything less than attack the challenge with less than the 100 percent he demands of his players.
The improvement in Bassett’s fortunes were almost immediate. Spathias took advantage of being on campus as a teacher and began rounding up the school’s top athletes. The varsity roster soon grew to 25-30 players in time for the 2012 season.
Bassett went from 1-9 to 3-7 in Spathias’ first year. The record may not look like much, but Spathias was laying the groundwork for what was ahead. That even meant simple things away from the football field that other schools take for granted.
Spathias instituted a policy that his players do not go home from school on game days. They arrive for school in the morning and don’t leave until after the game. Spathias cut deals with local restaurants to provide team meals before the games and made sure the players stayed hydrated throughout the day.
“We have a lot of guys who play both ways, so they would cramp if we didn’t keep them hydrated on game day and feed them a good meal before the game,” said Spathias, a 1981 graduate of Mountain View where he played football, basketball and baseball. “There’s no money in the budget, so I would pay for the meals myself or make arrangements with the restaurants. We go to Subway and order a sandwich tray or a local chicken place and get them rotisserie chicken, something they can play on.
“Many of the players don’t have money for cleats or food, so you arrange deals. They come from really good families. They just don’t have very much money.”
On the field, Bassett keeps things simple. Spathias has built his team around its offensive and defensive lines because. Last season, the Olympians bruised their way to a 5-5 record by being well-schooled fundamentally and playing with a chip on their shoulder after Spathias constantly reminded his team that they’re every opponent’s homecoming game when they play on the road.
The highlight of the season was a 27-13 win over nearby La Puente. The Olympians even had a shot at the league championship but a 21-20 fourth-quarter lead over Azusa turned into a 26-21 loss that ultimately kept them home for the playoffs despite a 5-2 record in league.
“We had to change the culture of the kids who are playing football at Bassett High School,” Spathias said. “When you’re getting beat down, you have to work on a lot of mental toughness. There are some plays where you’re going to get beat, like missed tackles. But it’s what you do after that. In the past, they’d put their head down but we didn’t want that to happen.
“In any of our games, no matter how bad we’re getting beat or how good we’re playing, we never quit.”
Spathias focuses on having top-notch line play, because as he puts it “We’re never going to have the fastest players on the field.” By design, no offensive linemen at Bassett play both ways. This season four of the starters are seniors and the other is a junior.
Although there’s a bevy of players back, the same cannot be said for the coaches. Spathias’ staff, which he gives a lot of the credit to, is in limbo as he waits to see if he’ll actually the money to pay them. In the meantime, Spathias has turned to freshly graduated players from last year’s team to help out as assistant coaches.
In order to keep the momentum going as Bassett enters the Miramonte League, Spathias is going to need an assist from yet another new administration at Bassett. Money to pay assistant coaches and fund team meals and equipment appears to be the biggest struggle the program faces today. That’s because on the field Spathias has everything covered.
“This year we have guys who have been in the program for a few years,” Spathias said. “We don’t have guys who have never played coming out for football in their junior or senior years just to try it. These guys have already gone through it mentally and physically.
“You want the kids to do well. You want them to have a little confidence in themselves before they go on to the next thing in their lives. This is one of the most satisfying coaching jobs I’ve ever had. We’d like to stay here as long as I’m getting administration support. But if I can’t pay my coaches, it’s going to be tough.”