Smith: Past meets present for Springfield as Ellis, Britton prepare to meet

High school coaches like to say that it’s not about them. And they’re right, because it isn’t.

The games that we watch, the games that we cover are about the student-athletes that play them.

Springfield and Great Valley go to battle Friday night at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School for the District One Class AAA title. The players, not the coaches, will determine who wins.

Springfield quarterback Brian Allen is close to becoming a 1,000-yard passer and a 1,000-yard rusher in the same season, an extremely rare feat by a Delco signal caller. Springfield’s defense is allowing 8.3 points per game. That’s crazy. Linebackers Adam Krauter and Ricky Sterling, linemen Dan Archibong and Brian Layden, and defensive backs Luc Spence and Mike Fleagle, among others, have played inspired football all season.

The seniors on Springfield were in the eighth grade the last time Dan Ellis coached at the school. Ellis, in his first season at Great Valley, did wonders for a Springfield program that had fallen on difficult times in the 2000s. Springfield had posted a 5-26 record in the three years preceding Ellis’ arrival. Ellis, a state-champion quarterback at Downingtown High and a standout at the University of Virginia, was hired to pick up the pieces and figure out how to make the Cougars relevant again.

By the time his three-year tenure on Leamy Ave. ended, soon after a District One semifinal-round playoff exit in 2010, Ellis wanted to be closer to his wife and children in Downingtown, so he resigned. His assistant, Tom Kline, was promoted and led the Cougars to three more winning seasons and three more district playoff berths.

Ellis and Kline, two Chester County coaches, paved the way for Chris Britton, a former Springfield player and longtime assistant who coached under Mike Heath, Chris Bell, Ellis and Kline. Britton paid his dues and has pushed the Cougars to the next level, something that seemed so improbable before Ellis’ arrival.

And so, there is a story to tell about the coaches.

“In seven years, they’ve gone from the dregs to the pinnacle. That’s a neat thing,’ Ellis said. “When you talk about building a program, I think it’s less about the coaches than it is about kids. You give the kids the framework and the structure, and then it’s about the kids who do it and put in the work. Guys like (2010 Daily Times Player of the Year) Matt Craig, Ryan Strain, Tyler Morrissey, Mike Gade and Adam Krauter… it’s about those guys more than it is about me or Tom or Chris. They changed Springfield football for the better, the kids.’

What Ellis started in 2008 — laying the foundation for future success — is difficult to overlook all these years later. But Ellis directed the Cougars to a .500 record (17-17), so it’s not as though he righted the ship in one year. It took time.

“When you talk about pride in a program and a culture of winning, it doesn’t just happen,’ he said. “What Springfield has is kind of what we have at Great Valley. You started to see it all happening — the pride in the program and the attitude changing — toward the end of my time there. You knew the program was ready for great things.’

Ellis would go on to become the head coach at West Chester East from 2011-13 and left that program in great shape, too. Ellis resigned from W.C. East to take the vacant position at Great Valley and has guided the Patriots to an 11-1 record.

“I’m older, balder and grayer than I was when I got down there,’ Ellis said, laughing. “I enjoyed my years at Springfield, but it’s nice not to have to build from the bottom. Right now I’m in a pretty good situation, where there was a great culture already set and we’re just adding on to what was already established.’

When Ellis took the Springfield job, he went through the process of sitting down with some of the assistants from the previous staff. Britton, who is a few years older than Ellis, was deemed a keeper.

“When you’re hired and you’re going in a new spot, you never know. I didn’t really know anybody in Delaware County, being a Chester County guy,’ Ellis said. “I knew I could get Tom to come with me, but other than that, you kind of take your chances. … You find out very quickly whether this guy knows his stuff or this guy doesn’t know his stuff.

“When you sit down and you talk to Chris … Chris knows his stuff. You could tell that right away. He did a great job as a defensive coordinator, he’s a great motivator and he’s a great Xs and Os guy. He’s really done a great job in his first year as head coach. I’m not surprised by what he’s accomplished.’

So, maybe this game was meant to happen, Great Valley vs. Springfield for a District One title. Is it fate? Ellis and Britton don’t think so. It’s not that big of a deal. After all, it’s about the players.

“We had scrimmaged Springfield in August, and I had said to Chris that it’s pretty cool where we started and how we and Tom built the program to where it is now,’ Ellis said. “It’s nice and I wish those guys well, but I hope we beat them. So, it’s not overly sentimental. They want to whip our butts, and we want to whip theirs.’


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