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November 30, 2002

Bella guides CSD to NCS football title game

From: Oakland Tribune, CA - 30 Nov 2002

Under new coach, Eagles make it to North Coast Section championship
FREMONT -- Coming off a pair of seasons in which it combined to win five of 20 games, the California School for the Deaf searched for a new football coach for the 2002 season.

When the job was given to Kevin Bella, there wasn't a whole lot of reason for optimism. The school's softball coach for nine years, Bella had exactly one season of football coaching experience -- as an assistant in charge of the defense for the 2001 squad that finished with a 3-7 record.

But in his first season as head coach, Bella, 30, not only has brought the program back to the respectable level it maintained under Gil Lentz for 13 years before he retired after the 2000 season -- Bella has carried the Eagles to heights they've never before reached.

On Saturday night, for the first time since CSD began playing football, the Eagles will be playing for a North Coast Section football championship. Bella's squad, with a 9-2 record that is three wins better than any team in school history, will take on defending champion Tomales (7-4) at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill in the NCS Class B title game.

Kickoff will be at 7 p.m.

CSD's turnaround has been as dramatic as it was unpredictable. The Eagles went from doormats to winning a share of the Bay Football League, posting a 3-1 league record that included a dominating 36-13 win in the regular season finale against St. Elizabeth of Oakland, pulling them into a three-way tie for first place.

During an amazing five-game midseason stretch, the Eagles shut out five straight opponents, by a combined score of 145-0. CSD added a sixth shutout last week, routing Point Arena 25-0 in the first round of the playoffs.

Some impressive on-field talent is surely in place -- especially senior two-way star David Harvey, who was named the BFL's defensive player of the year for his dominant play at linebacker. But most in the Eagles camp say the primary reason for the turnaround is the unassuming leader in crew cut and glasses.

Asked the difference between this season and years past, senior defensive tackle Francisco Gonzalez didn't hesitate.

"Our coach," Gonzalez signed through an interpreter prior to practice this week.

"I felt disgusted about previous years. We had a bad attitude, we didn't play well," Gonzalez continued. "This year, with our new coach, we have a great attitude. We cooperate together."

Both Harvey and Gonzalez say Bella is very communicative with his players, even encouraging them to offer input into game plans.

"I feel we have a great relationship," Gonzalez signed. "He makes everybody play hard, but he's fair. He also is very instructive on telling us what to do and how do to it. I wouldn't dare miss a practice or a camp or anything, because of him."

Bella can identify with his players. He played four years of football at CSD -- including two years on the varsity as a defensive back -- before graduating in 1989.

Bella spent two years at Gallaudet University, the nationally recognized deaf college in Washington, D.C., where he played one season of football. He then returned to CSD, where he works as a supervisory counselor in the student life department.

Bella was very content coaching the softball team until his brother-in-law, Keith Adams, who served as head football coach last year, persuaded him to come and help with the defense.

When Adams moved away and Bella became head coach, he decided to get some advice. He spent much of the summer in Concord, with the legendary De La Salle High program, learning from Spartans head coach Bob Ladoucer and defensive coordinator Terry Eidson. De La Salle has won 136 games in a row, a national record.

"We had good discussions with them both, one-on-one," Bella signed. "They shared their perspective on defense, what their goals were, how they did things."

Bella returned to Fremont and immediately overhauled his defense. He implemented a brand new system, from schemes to play-calling. The results have been nothing short of spectacular.

The Eagles defense not only made shutouts a habit, it yielded an average of only 153.7 yards per game during the regular season, ranking third in the entire East Bay.

With each victory, the local deaf community has embraced the coach and team even more. School Superintendent Dr. Hank Klopping has been amazed at the show of support.

"If you look at the crowds that come to the games, you'll understand then what it's meant," Klopping said. "We have bigger crowds coming to each game with more spirit, more enthusiasm. We have not had that here before."

First-year athletic director Mark Burke is constantly being asked about the football team, and he is enjoying every minute of it.

"I can't believe all the e-mails I get, people asking me about tickets and stuff. It's crazy," Burke signed. "I don't think Kevin or I ever imagined we'd get this far down the road. He's done a job far superior than anyone could have ever done in just a year's time. We have no complaints, we're enjoying the ride. We hope to win the championship trophy this Saturday."

As is the case with every game, Bella brings a lot of confidence into the title contest. He'll walk on the field believing in his team -- and his player, in turn, will feed off his determination.

"I told the players, we just need to play hard. Play with heart. Play with spirit. Play with fire," Bella signed. "Win or lose, we'll leave with a lot of pride."

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