In advance of Sunday's game against the Fairbanks Grizzlies at the Sovereign Center (4:00 p.m. kickoff), staff writer Megan Carpenter sat down with Reading Express Head Coach Chris Thompson to talk about the 2011 season thus far.
By Megan Carpenter, Staff Writer
When this season started, Reading Express Head Coach Chris Thompson was beginning his first full season as head coach, the team was entering a new league, and many of the players were fresh faces new to the organization. It sounds overwhelming, but not for Thompson, “I was more anxious than anything,” the coach reveals, “I was excited for the opportunity.”
Ten games later, that excitement has produced an Atlantic Division title, and the Express has secured a spot in the playoffs, “To be 7-3 after ten games, obviously we’re extremely pleased right now.”
Through the season it was a long road with some bumps along the way to get to this point, but the journey is far from over as Thompson begins to ready the team for playoffs.
A Season of Change
This season represented a new beginning for the team, becoming a part of the IFL. While a part of the AIFA, the team saw greatness, including a national championship in 2009. The IFL, a bigger league encompassing 22 teams across the country, presented a new challenge for the Express – a challenge that proved to be worth facing.
An integral part of guiding the team to success was the coaching staff. No matter the circumstances, Thompson appreciates his coaches, “I think we done the right things as a coaching staff since day one to put us in a situation that we could be successful and continue the winning tradition no matter what league we’re in.”
The Express is a team full of new faces this season, something Thompson says the coaching staff worked hard to recruit. A new league brings new rules, some of these changes players and coaches familiar with AIFA standards had to learn. Anticipating the effects of these changes helped the coaches build a better team in terms of what they looked for when they recruited players.
With players in new positions and rookies playing well, what Thompson refers to as the “makeover” has turned out well for the team. However, he acknowledges, like in any situation of change, there were growing pains along the way.
Thompson believes the attitude and desire to learn of the players put them on the right track this season when he referred to them as “students of the game.” Thompson deems this trait essential to success.
Despite any growing pains and challenges faced this season, the hard work of the coaching staff has not gone unappreciated by the players. At the team’s most recent game against Lehigh Valley, the game ball was given to the coaching staff.
“To me that just shows a lot of respect for myself and the rest of the coaches, that they’ve appreciated what we’ve done and where we started at and where we’ve come at this point,” says Thompson, “The coaching staff is second to none.”
Getting your head in the game might just be the secret to Express success as Thompson is a big believer in preparing not only physically, but mentally for games. He credits the players on this level of pro status as all being physically fit and capable, or else they wouldn’t be here, but he likes to have his players take the extra step and be mentally ready for each game, “How you separate yourself from your competition is through the mental preparation of the game.”
The team watches a lot of film in preparation for games. Each week the team tries to pick things that they can attack for each opponent in upcoming games.
“I enjoy that. Not being 6’3”, 200 plus pounds, I had to find other ways to be successful,” says Thompson referring to how he used mental preparation to find success as a football player.
A former Express player who holds a franchise record for his 49-yard touchdown pass, Thompson has really zeroed in on what works.
As it stands, the Express believes to receive either a second or third seed come playoffs. According to Thompson, both positions hold advantages and disadvantages. For the second seed spot, the obvious advantage, a first round bye. The obvious disadvantage for the second seed spot, also a first round bye, “I have mixed feelings on it. You take a week off, you could be rusty.” The third seed does not receive a bye week.
Either way, the Reading Express will be hosting a playoff game at the Sovereign Center. Playing at home, in front of the fans, is something the whole team is excited for, “When you have that kind of excitement and energy on your home turf, it’s a big adrenaline rush.”
Improving for playoffs is a big part of the equation, and Thompson reveals the key component to be success for all areas of play at once,
“We’ve had moments of greatness in all three phases of the game: offense, defense, special teams. We have yet to have a game where all three have been clicking.”
Thompson hopes to bring the team to a point in which all three units can be successful each game. If that can be achieved, he says the team could prove to be a very dangerous one going into playoffs.
Some aspects of the team Thompson hopes to keep a hold on heading into playoffs. For starters, kicker Eric Rockhold is beginning to come on very strong, improving greatly throughout the season.
Offensively, Thompson is pleased with how the quarterbacks have come along. Thompson appreciates what having two good quarterbacks in Chris Malleo and Bill Winters has done for the dynamic at the position, “Having two great ones like Billy and Chris, they push one another because they know if they slip up, somebody else is going to get an opportunity. That’s a good thing. You have to have two you feel you can win with a championship with, and we definitely feel that.”
With all the pieces of the puzzle coming together, Thompson sees good things for the team’s future, “I still don’t think we’ve played our best football. I still think our best football is yet to come.”
The Immediate Future
“We have to.” Those three words are how Thompson views taking a serious approach to the rest of the season versus coasting into playoffs. It’s all about hitting a stride at the right time. Thompson doesn’t want the team peaking too early and begin to slide during playoffs. Therefore, there will be no slacking for the Express.
Tomorrow the Express will be taking on the Fairbanks Grizzlies, a team they’ve never played before. How the team measures up to the Grizzlies who have won seven straight is something Thompson looks forward to, “This is a big game for us. It’s a great test for us.”
Thompson and the rest of the team appreciate the fan loyalty and support at any level of play, but as the excitement mounts for every part of team Thompson will be keeping the team focused on trying to win, “You have to take it one day at a time, one game at a time.”