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Decade’s best No. 10: Bruce Ransom helped Bucktail reach new heights with small roster in football

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the latest in a series looking back at the top 10 football teams, coaches, games and players from last decade

He was a coach who often doubled as a player. Bruce Ransom had no other choice.

Such is life at Bucktail, the state’s smallest public school which does not co-op for football. With so few players, the only way Bucktail can go 11 on 11 at practice is if the coaches compete so that is what Ransom did.

Ransom often fielded teams which included 20 or fewer players. But year after year, he coaxed everything possible from those players. One will not find Ransom among the area’s wins leaders last decade, but good luck finding someone who did more with less.

Under Ransom’s leadership from 2010-18, Bucktail reached the postseason four times, including earning its first District 4 Class A playoff berth in 2017. The Bucks won eight games in 2011, hosted their first playoff game in 44 years that season and always played hard for someone they viewed as more than a coach.

Forget records because this list would be incomplete if it did not include Ransom. This was a coach so respected by his players that when Ransom named the 2011 Sun-Gazette Coach of the Year provided comments for the story. No player wanted to be left out when honoring their leader.

“Coach Ransom is a one of a kind coach. He is always working hard to prepare us for the upcoming

games ahead,” the players said. “He is always looking out for everyone, whether you’re on his football team or not. He is always there for anyone who needs him.”

It was that way throughout Ransom’s 16 years as head coach. The odds often were stacked against Bucktail, but Ransom had his team believing they could do outstanding things and so often they did.

Bucktail reached the postseason four times in five years from 2008-12. The Bucks finished .500 or higher in each of the decade’s first three seasons. Following a promising six-win campaign in 2010, Bucktail returned a strong core for 2011. Ransom’s guidance helped it enjoy one of the best seasons in program history. Bucktail completed the regular season 8-1 and might have won its first playoff game had late-season injuries not ravaged it. Still, the Bucks led the area in yards per game, finished second in yards allowed and the starting defense held five teams without a point. Quarterback A.J. Morgan and wide receiver Matt Horton set single-season records and Bucktail’s only regular-season loss came against a Pius X team featuring multiple Division I recruits.

“It was awesome making history, being one of the smallest public football teams in the state,” the players said. “Also it was great to make our community, our school, our teachers, and our families proud because at Bucktail you don’t get to see this happen very often.”

Despite losing several starters from that team, Bucktail remained strong in 2012, going 6-4 and again reaching the postseason. Ransom was able to sustain a successful program throughout the decade, featuring innovative game plans and constantly adapting.

The small numbers forced Ransom to be like a chameleon. He had no set system. Whatever it took to put his players in the best position to succeed was the system. The players understood this and it made them try even harder as a result.

“He’s watching tape constantly, trying to find different schemes for our defense,” those 2011 players said. “He is vital to us because he is always watching out for us even off the field, in and out of football season. That’s why we trust every decision he makes on the field.”

Bucktail remained competitive throughout the decade, winning four games in both 2013 and 2015. A winless season followed in 2016, but that set Bucktail up for an improbable comeback as Ransom put together, arguably, his finest coaching performance.

Bucktail opened that 2017 season with 20 players, but quickly was in the teens following some early-season injuries. By Week 4, Bucktail was down to 15 players, but still found a way to come back at CMVT, wear down the Rams and win, 22-20. A few weeks later Bucktail was down to 14 players, but soldiered on.

One of Ransom’s gifts was his teaching ability. He was good with X’s and O’s but when one has so few players and he and his assistants also had to teach players multiple positions. This was especially true in 2017 as linemen were converted to running backs and vice-versa. Defensively, a player might spend time up front, at linebacker and in the secondary. They were well-prepared, too.

That played a major role in Bucktail going to Cowanesque Valley with 14 players in Week 9 and rallying in the second half for another victory. This one clinched a district playoff berth, a just reward for a team which found ways to win when other teams in the state canceled their seasons while having superior numbers.

“Our coaches are outstanding,” three-way starter Liam Dwyer said that year. “They prepare us every week and set up great game plans to give us the best chance at a win. What I like best is that our coaches care about as people and not only as football players. I feel like I could turn to them if I ever needed help with something outside football.”

“I just can’t think of a team that has faced this type of challenge week in and week out and still worked a game plan and bought into it to do their best to work it and execute it,” Ransom said that year. “There are not enough words to describe what they’re doing.”

That was the thing with Ransom. It was never about him. It was always about the kids. He shied away from any credit for the program’s success, always deflecting it toward them. Along the way, Ransom set a powerful example, winning the 2010 AAFC Sportsmanship Award as well as Coach of the Year honors four times.

That 2017 campaign will always hold a special place in Ransom’s and the community’s hearts. That was a team which sacrificed, himprovised, grew, relentlessly worked and flourished.

“There’s a lot of pride, a lot of happiness and good emotions. Our kids are flying high,” Ransom said after the CV win. “You look at the big picture and this is quite an accomplishment. This is bigger than football. It’s a real tribute to the kids we have at our school.

And to the man who coached those kids for so long.

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