HDN All-Area 2013 - Webster named top coach
By CONOR NICHOLL
La CROSSE -- Jon Webster admitted he was a "mess" and a "nervous wreck" in his first season as La Crosse High School's head football coach in 2009. Webster, a Leopard alumnus, was in his first head coaching job and just fourth year as a football coach at any level. La Crosse was expected to have a down year and went 7-3.
At the end of the season, La Crosse lost to Meade, 46-12, in Week 9 and Elkhart, 60-26, in the first round of the playoffs. It still remains the last regular season and first round playoff loss of Webster's tenure.
"There were a couple of games that we were just outmatched," Webster said. "I felt a lot of it with me being outmatched as a coach, and the last two games we played that year really pushed me to get better as a coach."
Before and after the first year, Webster received plenty of support from a community that loves football, former coach Ryan Cornelsen and current La Crosse superintendent Bill Keeley, a former Leopard head football coach.
"I had several dads and moms come up to me and say, 'You are the guy that we wanted, so that made that transition real smooth,' " Webster said.
After '08, he went to clinics and read books, especially Lou Holtz's book "Winning Every Day: The Game Plan for Success." Webster has read the book multiple times and calls it his "football Bible." Since then, Webster is 10-1, 12-1, 11-1 and 12-1 with the Leopard football program.
This season, despite three freshmen starting, the loss of star defensive end Sheldon Schmidt to a Week 4 season-ending knee injury, and multiple personnel changes, La Crosse finished as Class 2-1A state runner-up to Centralia. For his efforts, Webster earned Coach of the Year honors on the 30th annual HDN All-Area Super 11.
"He is a players' coach," junior quarterback Jack Garcia said. " We love to play for him, and he knows what it takes to win."
Webster, who is also a boys' basketball assistant coach and won back-to-back 1A boys' track titles, has won 36 straight regular season games, the longest current run in Kansas. La Crosse has won 10-plus contests in seven of the last eight years. The last three falls is the greatest three-year span in school annals.
"I moved here in third grade, and I noticed the football atmosphere was so much different," Garcia said.
"It's so awesome playing in this town, because we have a community that is behind us no matter what every football season. It's so special for me to play for La Crosse and this community."
Webster was a freshman when Keeley, formerly at Dodge City, came to La Crosse as the head coach and started to change the culture. Webster believes that if Keeley hadn't come to La Crosse, he wouldn't have gone on to play college football and probably wouldn't have become a social studies teacher.
At Bethany, Webster learned from longtime Swede coach Ted Kessinger, another major influence. After college, Webster coached girls' basketball and junior varsity baseball for one season at Gypsum-Southeast of Saline.
The first game he coached was a girls' basketball C team contest that ended in a 54-4 loss to legendary Claflin coach Pat Stiles in a score that could have been much worse. The JV baseball team had a near-perfect record.
Then, Webster coached for two years at Conway Springs and assisted with the junior high and varsity before the Keeley family asked him to come back to La Crosse.
In 2008, Webster was the Leopard defensive coordinator for an 11-1 team. When Cornelsen left for his position at Hays High School, the Leopards offered the job to Webster first. Webster turned down the job, saying he wasn't ready.
La Crosse had some high quality applicants and interviews. Webster was excited to stay on staff and learn from another head coach, but three coaches turned down the position. Webster saw the remaining candidates and wanted the job.
"Not quite possibly ready to do it, but if somebody was not going to be ready, I wanted that somebody to be me," he said.
Backed by the strong support system, Webster has continually improved. After the first year, Webster realized he needed to build more relationships with his players.
"It helped me grow up as a coach, those last two games just getting our tails kicked," he said. "I think that has helped me prepare the last four years for the big games."
Webster wanted to have the same affect Keeley and Kessinger had with him.
"The first group, I didn't do a good job of building relationships within the team, and that's something that I wanted to instill upon the kids that go through this program," he said.
Holtz's book provided the pathway on how to make a difference in players' lives.
Webster still reads parts of the book every spring to refresh his memory. A couple of years ago, a friend gave him an autographed copy.
The book details how coaching is much more than just Xs and Os and having the strongest weight room kids. Success comes when the kids know the coaches care. Players often stay at practice past 7 p.m. simply to hang out and will sometimes text Webster at night asking about class assignments or other things in life.
"It's making sure that the kids know that they are important," Webster said.
This season, La Crosse had big improvements across the board, but especially from senior lineman Cody Lee (team-best 23 tackles for loss, one in his first three years) and junior Andrew Jay (1,986 all-purpose yards, 130 in 2012).
"I think that's how we are able to overachieve," Webster said. "I heard a lot of coaches tell me, 'You guys really overachieved this year, and I think it is we really care so much about each other that we weren't willing to break when things got tough."