Dayton players have coach’s back during trying season
For the Appeal
It irked many students when Dayton hired Tom Eck — the school’s night custodian — as the head football coach in May.
“During summer, when people heard that they were hiring a janitor as a coach, no one came out,” Dayton senior lineman Colton Cabral said.
Talk of Eck being “just a janitor” echoed on social media among students, players said.
“It was so bad I deleted my Twitter,” Cabral said.
Dayton (0-9, 0-8 in Division 1A) plays its last game of the season at 7 p.m. today against Fernley.
Only five seniors still play for Dayton, compared to 18 in last season’s final home game.
Consequentially, along with several other factors, the Dust Devils are the only Nevada high school football team without a point this year.
Opponents have outscored Dayton 421-0 combined this season.
Several more players quit during the season. Coaches left citing personal reasons.
The players who remained, about 20 on a good night, stay upbeat. They joke about dumping Gatorade on coach if they score — even if it’s a blowout — and they certainly haven’t quit.
Custodian to head coach
Eck arrived in Dayton last year after working five years as a custodian and linemen coach at Santa Barbara High in California.
In 2010, Eck said he moved to Santa Barbara after his floor maintenance business flopped during the recession.
He started as a campus security guard at Santa Barbara and was eventually hired as head custodian.
“I remember how he’d often work more than 20 hours straight going from custodial work to practice,” said Doug Caines, Santa Barbara’s head coach at the time. “Tom just loves the kids.”
But bills mounted and Eck’s wife, Jill Eck, left her job at AT&T with severe back problems, Eck said.
In 2014, the family looked for jobs near their daughter, who lives in Fernley.
“I don’t know how many jobs I applied for,” Eck said. “Then all of a sudden Yerington interviewed me, Dayton, too… I wasn’t looking for a head coach position. I always considered myself the best permanent assistant.”
Eck became Dayton’s night custodian last September. The long-time youth and high school assistant coach — never a high school head coach — “snuck” into film session with then-Dayton head coach Rob Turner.
Eck also coached softball.
After Turner stepped down as head coach last November, Eck expressed interest in the job.
“It is one of those things, as a school, coaching positions are tied to teaching positions,” said Dayton Principal Steve Henderson, who was the assistant principal and athletic director in the spring. “We typically don’t know where we are at teachers until the spring. We were waiting to find out if we were going to have openings. When there are no openings, it’s hard for teachers to come coach.”
But Eck beat out two other candidates, Henderson said.
Making the transition
The day after the announcement, Eck focused less on sweeping the halls as custodian and more on sweeping the halls for players.
He “scribbled down 25” commitments during the lunch break that day, he said.
But potential recruits hesitated.
“People would say, ‘Dayton sucks,’ Well, I’d say, ‘You should show up (and play),’” senior Jeremiah Sermeno said.
But few did.
During one summer practice, Cabral remembers as few as nine players.
Meanwhile, Eck instituted a new offensive scheme: the flexbone triple-option, known for its use at military academies and in rare cases among Bowl Championship Series universities such as Georgia Tech.
Lacking seniors and a weight training program during the offseason, Dayton entered the season undersized with a depleted senior class.
Eck has juggled several players at quarterback, but each suffered behind a weak, injury-riddled offensive line.
He’s recently called Dylan Torgerson, a junior.
“A couple of the players have gotten to the point where they just want to give up, but for the most part the junior class has stuck together,” said Torgerson, who in addition to quarterback plays defensive back and returns kicks.
To boast roster numbers, Eck — who also coaches Dayton’s junior varsity games with a total staff of five coaches — forfeited three JV games this year so underclassmen could be available in varsity games.
Blowout losses started early and continued: Lovelock (38-0), Sparks (48-0), Spring Creek (68-0), Truckee (52-0) and Fallon (52-0).
At Winnemucca, the Dust Devils offense moved inside the Lowry 10-yard line twice, throwing an interception in the end zone and turning the ball over on downs.
Dayton lost at Winnemucca 40-0, then against South Tahoe (41-0), Wooster (33-0) and Elko (49-0).
Historic scoreless drought
The Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association doesn’t keep records on team scoring droughts, but going this long without a point is nearly unprecedented, at least in the modern era, NIAA Assistant Director Jay Beesemyer said.
“I’ve been here 22 years and I can’t remember having a conversation about a team not scoring a point in a season,” Beesemyer said.
Those closest to the program, including former coaches, say getting players out to practice and games on Friday night remains Eck’s greatest accomplishment.
“It’s amazing there out there still doing it,” said Rick Walker, who coached Dayton to an undefeated regular season in 2006 before losing to Virgin Valley, of Mesquite, in the playoffs. “They’re doing what they can do. He came in late. With the numbers he has, it is really tough. Not having a freshman program really hurt.”
Dayton lost its freshman program a few years ago under Turner. Turner noticed it got tougher each year at Dayton.
“The reason we started 4-0 (last season) was because we had a heavy senior-laden team,” Turner said. “But even with 25 (players) during the season, we started losing players to injury as they are this year and then you are scraping together whatever you got. I know how he (Eck) feels.”
Dayton ended last year losing five of its last six games.
Henderson called realignment to a more competitive division next year a “possibility.”
When asked if Eck would retain his job next year, Henderson said: “He’s got to go through the evaluation process. I’m not going to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
“One thing I can say is I’m proud with the way we’ve continued to fight and not give up,” Henderson said. “That’s ultimately a good judge of character in going through adversity. That’s what high school sports teach us. It’s not all flowers and candy. I feel both our players and coaches have done that.”
Not giving up
Through it all, though, Dayton’s remaining players fight.
Players like Torgerson only sit out a handful of plays each half.
“He’d cry if we took him out,” assistant coach T.J. Harnar said of Torgerson.
But Torgerson isn’t the only one.
“Dayton is ‘ironman football,’” Sermeno said. “We play defense and offense.”
The players aren’t fighting for wins anymore. They fight to finish a season they won’t soon forget — they fight for those who stayed.
“We are doing it to not let each other down,” lineman Julian Gonzalez said.
They also fight for coach, the former custodian and long-time assistant who got his first head coach job this year at 51.
Eck no longer works as the night custodian. He now works in Dayton’s special education department. He says he plans to get his teaching accreditation through Western Governors University.
The chaos of this summer has started to calm, Eck said.
“This has been the toughest year in all our years of coaching,” said his wife, Jill, who underwent reconstructive back surgery before the Lowry game.
Even without scoring a point, Eck says he’s been through too much this year to worry about losing his job.
He’s glad the players still come out.
Eck’s players are glad he hasn’t given up on them, either.
“People have actually realized he knows what he’s talking about — that he actually knows a thing or two about football,” Cabral said. “I think now he has people’s respect. I think he should have had it way back when he was trying to put a team together in three months with nine kids coming out in summer. That made it really tough as well.
“It’s been a roller-coaster season.”