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PITTSBURGH — Russ Barley waited a long time for his first head coaching position.
Hired by Freedom in the offseason, the 59-year old is making the most of his chance.
The Bulldogs, undefeated at 3-0 and in sole possession of first place in the Class 2A Midwestern Conference, are one of the season’s biggest surprises.
“It’s been kind of a whirlwind,” Barley said of his team’s start. “We’re having a blast right now. We knew we could be good, but it’s kind of unexpected we would start off this way.”
Freedom started hot a year ago but faded in the second half amid an abrupt coaching change. Then-head coach Tom Liberty resigned with two weeks left in the regular season, and school officials promoted Barley, the team’s defensive coordinator, to interim coach. The Bulldogs couldn’t sustain their early season momentum and dropped their final three contests of the year, including a 28-0 playoff loss to Washington.
In the offseason, Freedom removed the interim tag from Barley’s name and he went to work overhauling the program, installing a brand new offense and defense. You can’t argue with the results, either. The Bulldogs have outscored opponents 145-6 and are aiming for their first 4-0 start since 1991 when they face Mohawk (2-1) Friday night.
“We sort of matched what we’re doing with the kids we have and it’s worked well,” Barley claimed. “That has a lot to do with it. They’re experienced and they kind of know what it’s all about. They just needed a little bit of guidance to get there.”
Freedom scored a touchdown on its first offensive play from scrimmage of the season against Hopewell and hasn’t slowed down since. The Bulldogs are averaging an eye-popping 48 points per game, the same total they scored in their final six games of last year. The real story is the defense, though.
Freedom has pitched back-to-back shutouts, including a 43-0 drubbing of Riverside last week, and only surrendered one offensive touchdown. Barley installed a 4-3 defense that “morphs into whatever we need it to be” and is similar to the system he ran as a coordinator at Blackhawk.
“We put some people in places where other guys don’t necessarily want them to be and it causes a lot of strain on the offense,” Barley said. “It gives our kids great reads, and because the reads are so simple it gives them the opportunity to play fast.”
Freedom entered the season with senior Cody Ross entrenched at linebacker and an experienced secondary, but Barley credits the defensive line for his team’s strong performance.
“Those guys are eating up blockers and they’re taking care of business in there,” Barley said. “That’s been a lot of it. We stuff up the holes and people have trouble running and then it forces them to throw.”
Barley specifically praised defensive ends Kevin Lawrence and David Martsolf.
“The two of them have just done an outstanding job shutting everybody down,” Barley remarked. “They get pressure on the quarterback, and we haven’t had to blitz a lot. We do a little bit, but we really haven’t had to do a lot because of the two of them.”
Against Riverside, a team that went 9-3 a year ago, Freedom returned an interception for a touchdown and Lawrence and nose tackle Jimmy Happ teamed up to record a safety. It was the Bulldogs’ first win over the Panthers’ since 2012.
As with any new coaching change, it took time for Barley’s methods to sink in. Every coach searches for that instance when the players fully buy in and for Barley that moment came versus Hopewell.
“They weren’t sure up until then,” Barley observed. “In the first quarter of the Hopewell game, we kind of jumped on them a little bit and you could just see it in their eyes. They’ve just built on it ever since.”
Freedom hasn’t posted a winning season since 2004 but Barley has the Bulldogs believing they can.