Kit Jory had a plan – a very specific one – for the long-suffering Riverbank High School football program.
His pitch to athletic director John Bartlett and principal Sean Richey: Over the next five years, he would lift the Bruins from the depths of the Stanislaus District. They would turn football into a source of pride in a community renowned for its non-contact sports and endurance athletes.
Over those five years, he would upgrade the uniforms and the equipment, the commitment and the attitude, and ultimately the winning percentage.
The recipe placed an importance on the progression. Jory was adamant about that point: Before Riverbank could celebrate a championship with a full-field sprint, it would need to crawl out of the shadows of the forgotten.
Jory packaged his passion and desire in folders he placed in Bartlett’s and Richey’s hands. It was his pledge. And their script.
“In my three years as the athletic director, I have had several interviews for coaches. He came in and just blew us away,” Bartlett said. “When he left, we knew without a doubt that he was our No. 1 pick. He had a five-year plan and he hasn’t deviated from it one bit.”
Today, the most important piece in that plan is Trisha Ayala, a 46-year-old volunteer, and a laptop synced with 30 cutting-edge impact-monitoring helmets.
Following innovations by Modesto City Schools last fall, the Riverbank Unified School District has purchased gForce Tracker helmets for its active varsity players at a cost of $19,000.
Using a laptop equipped with specialized software, Ayala monitors hits and collisions – both big and small, on the ball and off – and alerts the coaches to any possible head injuries.
“This shows that football is no longer the stepchild in this community,” Jory said of the school district’s investment. “It shows that it’s a legitimate program and they’re taking it seriously.”
Concussions: Eliminating the confusion
Safety is a global concern in football, from Pop Warner to the pros. High school athletes find themselves under a strong lens.
According to a study by the Institute of Medicine, high school football players are nearly twice as likely to sustain a concussion as college players. The study measured head trauma in a variety of high school sports, including soccer, wrestling, baseball and softball, basketball and volleyball.
High school football players will suffer 11.2 concussions for every 10,000 games and practices, according to the study, compared to just 6.3 at the college level.
“Some of our players take huge hits,” said Riverbank senior quarterback Jalen Spikes, a four-year member of the program. “For our coaches, it’s hard to realize if they’re hurt or not. As a player, you don’t want to come out of the game.”
Though he didn’t have a player diagnosed with a concussion last fall, Jory is haunted by the doubt and unknown. Was there a chance a player’s symptoms went unidentified? When the big hit occurred, did the coaching staff handle it right?
“Concussion was never a known issue, but it was a worry and a concern,” Jory said. “We had one player ... we couldn’t say he had a concussion, but everything in our heart told us to hold him out a couple of plays. Now, we can make a much more educated decision right away.”
The controls have been placed in the hands of Ayala, who stood at the 50-yard line watching Friday’s game against the California School for the Deaf unfold in streams of data.
In my three years as the athletic director, I have had several interviews for coaches. He came in and just blew us away. ... He had a five-year plan and he hasn’t deviated for it one bit.
Riverbank athletic director John Bartlett on football coach Kit Jory
She’s been given very strict instructions: If a hit registers above a threshold of 115 G-forces, that player must be immediately evaluated by coaches and a physician. If a player’s activity level suddenly drops, regardless of the G-forces, he must come off the field immediately. If a player has sustained multiple hits to the same part of the head, Ayala must flag a coach immediately.
To date, no Riverbank player has required immediate attention.
“I feel safer,” said junior running back and middle linebacker Allen Brown, clutching a gForce Tracker helmet.
Out with the old, in with the new
Ayala got roped into a volunteer position because she is the girlfriend of junior varsity coach Scott Gordon.
Last year, she charted plays in the booth. This fall, her role takes on greater significance.
“There’s just a little pressure,” she said with a laugh, “but that’s OK. I worked at an elementary school for eight years, so I’m all about safety and the protection of our kids. I do it for the love of the kids.”
So does Jory, who inherited a program that had been forgotten.
The equipment was substandard. The game-day uniforms were fit for retirement, not the Friday night spotlight. And the Bruins played under a perpetual dark cloud.
“We’re always using old equipment. Stuff that is broken. Stuff you wouldn’t want to use,” Brown said. “We’re tired of seeing old things. Not just with equipment, but the overall mood.”
Riverbank has endured 11 consecutive losing seasons, including three 0-10 campaigns. One of those belongs to Jory, who struggled with attrition in the first year of his five-year plan.
“We finished with 15 semi-healthy guys, and out of those, two or three guys were really banged up. They could barely take the field,” Jory said. “One of the things I looked at was: How can I keep these guys healthy? I’ve got parents who don’t want their kids to play because their main concern is safety. How can I create an environment with the greatest amount of safety for my players?”
It began with another folder. Another specific plan.
In December, Jory approached administration with a proposal. He wanted to secure 80 state-of-the-art helmets through gForce Tracker, which would help protect and educate the program about head trauma.
Bartlett was familiar with the advancements in helmet technology. His daughter attends Gregori High, where senior linebacker Dominic Barandica spearheaded the purchase of impact-monitoring helmets for a seven-school district.
“As a struggling team in the Trans-Valley League, we had kids getting hurt all the time. It was like musical ambulances out there,” Bartlett said. “Our student safety ... to make it as a safe environment, I was 100 percent on board.”
In April, Jory facilitated a meeting between a gForce Tracker representative and Daryl Camp, Riverbank Unified superintendent.
Two months later, the district authorized the purchase of 30 helmets.
Advancement in technology and success
The technology follows Modesto City Schools’ integration of Riddell InSite Impact Response System helmets at every level. Those helmets are designed to deflect impact and alert a designated coach or physician of every dangerous hit.
At the time, Modesto City Schools was believed to be the first public district in the state to incorporate such helmets for all of its football players.
Jory said gForce Tracker takes that technology to the next level, providing multiple data points through a sensor in the chinstrap. There are dashboards for each player, monitoring activity and impact in real time, and the analytics are stored for study over a career or lifetime.
“It’s never just one hit,” Jory said. “It’s repetitive hits over time that have gone undiagnosed or unidentified. We now have the data that this player has taken a number of hits to the same side of his head. Not only does it set off an alarm, but it becomes a tremendous coaching tool. The technology we have now – and the advances they continue to make – is just amazing.”
So, too, are Riverbank’s advancements.
One year after finishing the season with 15 “semi-healthy” players, the Bruins began the season with 32 on the roster. The team is 2-2 with a greater presence on campus and in the community.
Jory believes there is a correlation between the turnout and the technology, and the technology and success.
“My goal at Riverbank is to make it relevant in football. They’ve never been relevant,” Jory said. “I told the school I had a five-year plan. I didn’t just want to create a football program that is conducive to the student-athlete, but change the entire culture of football in Riverbank. This is one step in that process.”