One by one, the Big Valley Christian varsity football team files out of a meeting room with military precision.
Each footfall replaced by another. They don’t speak or step out of line. In blue jeans and uniform tops, they are indistinguishable.
First-year coach Brian Berkefeld believes in order above chaos. He likes straight lines and silence. He inherited this meticulous nature from his former boss, Grace Brethren coach John Henderson.
“We always tell our kids we want to outclass our opponents in everything we do, whether it’s stretching or how we walk onto the field,” Berkefeld says. “In all the things we do, we want to say we do it better. Hopefully, by doing all the little things right that translates to wins on the field.
“It doesn’t always, but I like to think so.”
‘In all the things we do, we want to say we do it better. Hopefully, by doing all the little things right that translates to wins on the field.’
Brian Berkefeld, Big Valley Christian football coach
This type of precision has turned Grace Brethren of Simi Valley into a Southern California power. The Lancers are 34-4 the last three seasons.
Berkefeld hopes Big Valley Christian is on its way. A straight-edge program has burned a straight line through its schedule: Eight wins in eight games, and a Central California Athletic Alliance title within site.
“He’s the most influential coach I’ve ever had,” Berkefeld said of Henderson, “even as a player.”
He throws open the cover to his phone to check the time and schedule. Yep, time to move.
The Lions carry down the long hallway, stopping at the doors of the gymnasium. Once inside, they move quickly through walk-throughs, the silence interrupted only by sneakers on the tile, quarterback Gunnar Selovar’s cadence, and coach Berk.
“You can’t do that!” he tells one player. “That’s two players in motion.”
“Stop! Where are you lined up right now?”
In less than two hours, the undefeated Lions will face their toughest test of the season: Brookside Christian of Stockton, the reigning CCAA and Sac-Joaquin Section Division VII champions.
Football at BVC: Patchwork, but potent
Brookside Christian is faster and bigger at the skill positions than the Lions, among the smallest of the Stanislaus District’s small schools.
As the Knights strut onto campus, they exude confidence. Music blares from a personal speaker, announcing their arrival.
Berkefeld spins to catch a glimpse of his opponent. Oh. The size of the Knights catches him by surprise. Brookside Christian is much bigger than it looks on film, and that could be an issue.
“It’s a bad match-up for us,” Berkefeld says. “We really can’t match up with that speed on the outside. We have cornerbacks that are probably linebackers anywhere else.”
Here on the corner Pelandale Avenue and Tully Road, the football is patchwork but no less potent.
Big Valley Christian is one of four undefeated programs left in the Stanislaus District. Remarkably, three of those teams reside within the Modesto city limits: BVC, Central Catholic and Gregori.
Big Valley Christian and Gregori are separated by a matter of miles on the northern edge of town, but their rooted in two different worlds.
Gregori boasts a 55-man roster and draws talent from a pool of 2,273 students.
By comparison, Big Valley Christian has 197 high school students. In fact, the high school is nearly outnumbered by the pint-sized elementary students who occupy the second floor of the building.
When Berkefeld was announced as the head coach in February, he faced more than a numbers issue. He was still living in Southern California, coordinating workouts by phone. He traveled to Modesto about once a month “so the kids could see my face,” he said.
He also had to fight the legacy of a popular former coach, Tim Giannosa, now a pastor in Virginia. Under Giannosa, the Lions went 20-13 from 2014-16, enjoyed back-to-back winning seasons, and reached their only section final in 2015. Big Valley Christian was defeated by CCAA rival Stone Ridge Christian.
Those close to the program began using words like “trajectory,” so naturally, Giannosa’s departure deeply impacted the program. The numbers in the weightroom sagged and the Lions began fall camp with a fraction of their current roster.
“It was difficult, because I really liked Giannosa,” senior Trenton Reed said. “Over the summer, I went to where he’s living now and had lunch with him. The shift from Giannosa to Coach Berk was tough. At this point, though, it’s hard to imagine it any differently.”
Player: ‘No one is content’
Berkefeld had to prove his methodology worked. He had to create a buzz.
As the Lions began to stack victories, it created more and more interest. Kids began to trickle out to the practice field, and the trust began to trickle down.
The turning point was a 28-27 victory at Fresno Christian, an eight-man juggernaut who plays an 11-man nonconference schedule. Since then, the Lions have seemingly hit their stride.
Big Valley Christian has won its last six games by 17 points or more, including last week’s 42-20 triumph over Brookside Christian.
The Lions are projected by CalPreps.com to improve to 9-0 with a 48-8 victory over Riverbank on Friday, which would match the best start in program history.
“No one is content, said Reed, a fourth-year senior who plays safety, outside linebacker and wide receiver. “We want to see how far we can take it. We want to keep pushing.”
Sophomore Javyn Drobnick has developed quickly in Berkefeld’s run system. Drobnick has rushed for 1,124 yards and 15 touchdowns, and he leads the Stanislaus District with three 200-yard games. He had 204 yards and three TDs in the win over the Knights.
“I’ve coached a lot of good running backs, guys playing in college,” Berkefeld said. “No one accelerates through the hole faster.”
Senior Dirk Neveling, a former rugby player, was miscast as a lineman under Giannosa, Berkefeld said. Today, he’s the Lions top defender, a middle linebacker who turns every tackle into a head-on collision.
He is second on the team with 44 stops, despite missing one game for a college visit.
And then there are the others: Gunnar the QB; Josh “Gronk” Grabowski; strongman Finn Bamrud; and Jared Thompson and Tyler Meyer, ace 1 and 1A of the baseball program, to name just a few.
It’s an unlikely cast off to an unlikely start, drawing from an unlikely chemistry. The one constant, though, has been Berkefeld and his straight-line mentality.
“It’s more of just an attitude change,” Reed said. “The non-committed ... the players that just wanted to hang out versus ‘I want to succeed and do well in football.’ That attitude shift has been cool to see.”