Empty wine bottles in the Josephine Theater, Kool & The Gang on the sound system and a question about Asian long snappers were pretty strong indications this was no ordinary night for the Fresno State football team.
The occasion was Football 101 Ladies Night, a social event hosted by Tim and Kara DeRuyter, members of the coaching staff and 20 players that gave female fans fun and unique behind-the-scenes access while raising money for a great cause.
“I think there’s a lot of women who like football but don’t really know the X’s and O’s about it,” said Tim DeRuyter, the Bulldogs’ fifth-year coach.
“If they’re sitting watching a game with their husbands, maybe they’re a little intimidated to ask a question. Here they can ask any question they want in a comfortable environment, maybe have a glass of wine, without their husbands around.”
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The evening began with dinner and drinks in the Student Athlete Village, where organizers had the good sense to set up most of the tables in the shade of the Duncan Building. The ladies got to mingle with players and coaches and pose for photographs next to a mannequin in full uniform.
This is a great way for women to learn about football and meet the coaches and players on a more intimate level.
DeRuyter formally got things going by introducing a coaching staff that contains a slew of changes. When he got to new tight ends coach Joe Bernardi, a former Bulldogs player, DeRuyter couldn’t get the years straight before settling on, “He was here between 2004 and 2010, and at some time he graduated.”
The 96 attendees were divided into three groups and rotated through presentations given by offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and a Q&A session with players held in the weight room.
I tagged along with Group 3, which started out with the player panel, and the very first question from the front row was whether the Bulldogs intended to “play fast” on offense next season.
“Is this a trick question?” replied a smiling Aaron Mitchell, a junior guard. “Blazing fast. That’s the plan, to go as fast as possible.”
“Because it was slow last year,” retorted the questioner, who apparently isn’t over the San Diego State game.
Everyone laughed again.
I couldn’t see anything. I almost fell because there was so much smoke.
Bulldogs senior Aaron Mitchell, reliving his first trip down the Bulldog Stadium ramp
Other nuggets unearthed by the group included how much film the players watch each week (in season, up to 15 hours), where they live (Palazzo at Campus Pointe, Bulldog Village or rent houses), whether they prefer playing in extreme heat or cold (heat, unanimously) and if any of them have strange pregame rituals or superstitions.
“Our kicker drinks the same amount of juice before every game,” sophomore tight end Kyle Riddering said. “He always eats the same meal, and he only eats part of it. That’s the strangest one I’ve seen.”
The most personal question was directed at senior long snapper Justin Verrell.
“How many Asian long snappers are in the Mountain West?”
As you might’ve guessed, it was from Verrell’s mom, Stephanie, who has been busy spreading the hashtag #asianlongsnapper on social media.
If I had a dollar for every time she put #asianlongsnapper on Facebook …
Bulldogs senior Justin Verrell, on his mother, Stephanie
The sessions with Ward and Kiesau, Fresno State’s first-year coordinators, were geared toward introducing the attendees to the Bulldogs’ schemes and terminology.
Using a projection screen and laser pointer, Ward went over the basics of the 3-4 defense and how it allows him to vary the number of players rushing the passer or dropping into coverage, depending on down and distance.
“The beauty of the 3-4 defense is when you line up with three down linemen, most of the time you’re going to rush four guys,” Ward said. “They don’t know if the Sam or the Joker (linebacker) is coming.”
Kiesau, whose room had “Ladies Night” by Kool & The Gang playing in heavy rotation, emphasized run-pass options, plays that give the QB that leeway based on how the defense is positioned.
Kiesau, whose room had “Ladies Night” by Kool & The Gang playing in heavy rotation, emphasized “RPOs.” Standing for run-pass options, these are plays that give the quarterback leeway based on how the defense is positioned.
“This is the magic. When you get home you can tell your husbands, ‘Honey, I learned about RPOs,’ ” said Kiesau, who is more of a fast-talking wisecracker than I previously realized. “He’ll say, ‘What’s an RPO?’ and you can say, ‘Don’t you know?’ ”
When the three groups completed the rotation, everyone filed into the locker room to check out its rows of towering hardwood lockers, players’ lounge with leather couches and big-screen TVs, and messages of the program’s core values (trust and love) and slogans.
After a few more questions, it was through the front door, across the parking lot, down the Bulldog Stadium ramp and through a giant inflatable Bulldog – mimicking the walk players make on game days.
Years ago I worked for the Los Angeles Raiders and thought I knew a lot about football, but I learned some new things.
Football 101 Ladies Night attendee Kristi Johnson
To finish the night, everyone gathered on the midfield logo where the DeRuyters presented a $6,000 check to the Susan G. Komen Central Valley Foundation.
Executive Director Sharon Johnson, herself a two-time breast cancer survivor, said the money will be directed to educating young women in local high schools and creating focus groups for stage 3 and 4 breast cancer patients.
Tuesday was the second year the Bulldogs have hosted a Football 101 Ladies Night. DeRuyter’s mother and sister-in-law are breast cancer survivors, so the tie-in with the Susan G. Komen Central Valley Foundation was a natural fit.
“Fresno State, both athletics and the school, are such a big part of this community,” Kara DeRuyter said, “and this is a great way for women to learn about football and meet the coaches and players on a more intimate level.”
Even this male sports columnist gleaned a thing or two.