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Architect of Cathedral

Sigsbury brought structure to unbeaten Panthers

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / December 3, 2011
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READING - There was a little more than a minute left in Cathedral’s Division 4A playoff game against Chelsea when doubt began to set in on the Panthers’ sideline.

Staring at a 4-point deficit and a heartbreaking end to its season, things looked bleak for undefeated Cathedral as a light rain began to fall.

After scoring an 11-yard touchdown off a pitch from quarterback Matt Owens to pull the Panthers within 10-6 with 1:39 to go, Geeavontie Griffith, Cathedral’s captain and star tailback, approached coach Duane Sigsbury with a sense of resignation about his team’s prospects for pulling out a victory.

Griffith wanted to offer his gratitude to Sigsbury for all that he had done in his first year as Cathedral’s coach, turning a program that went 5-6 the year before and had just one winning season in the last decade into the champion of the Catholic Central League Small Division.

“Hey, Coach, thank you,’’ Griffith said.

“Thank you for what?’’ said a dumbfounded Sigsbury, clinging to hope as stubbornly as he did to his season-long superstition of wearing the same black shorts to every game.

“You know, Coach, thank you,’’ Griffith repeated.

“Gee, this game ain’t over yet,’’ Sigsbury said, putting a halt to his player’s doubt.

“You’re right,’’ replied Griffith, suddenly enlightened because there was still time for a last-gasp punt return.

Sigsbury set up a return for Griffith and Carlos Bermudez.

“I was just thinking before the play, they’re kicking it to our two best return men and we have a shot,’’ said assistant coach Delsin Grubbs.

“It was a pretty special moment,’’ Sigsbury chuckled afterward.

Soon after, Sigsbury, 36, stood on the track at Reading High, not far from the field where he played for and coached the Rockets, accepting congratulations from friends, relatives, and well-wishers following Cathedral’s 12-10 victory.

It was a stunning triumph pockmarked by five turnovers (including three fumbles by Griffith) but highlighted by Bermudez’s 70-yard punt return with no time left that propelled the Panthers to a Super Bowl matchup today against Blue Hills at Bentley University.

“This is what it’s been about,’’ said Sigsbury, a gregarious, quick-witted coach who has the charisma (and 4X shirt size to match) of Rex Ryan but the football acumen and no-nonsense attention to detail of Bill Belichick.

“This has been our whole year, just rising to the occasion, stepping up, and doing things the right way,’’ said Sigsbury. “And we did. Everything that possibly could have gone wrong for us this year, happened to us in this game - fumbles and mistakes. So we learned doing all the little things that we did to make them add up to that big win at the end.’’

When Bermudez went sprinting past him for the touchdown, Sigsbury spun around and hollered in euphoria. His buddies and former Rockets teammates from the 1992 Super Bowl squad came tumbling out of the stands and onto the field to celebrate with him.

“I couldn’t believe it,’’ said Jim Murphy, the former Reading quarterback who played at Northeastern. “I came sprinting from the top of the stands, tried to leap the fence, tripped and fell on my head, and was just super-excited for him. He’s done an unbelievable job.

“He’s breathed life into this program and he’s a great football coach and a great father figure to these kids, and to have them believe in themselves to win on a punt return, with no time on the clock? It’s just unbelievable.’’

As he jumped up and down on the sideline in a group hug with his Reading football buddies, Sigsbury, with his back to the field, had but one question: “Guys, are there any flags?’’

“They said, ‘Nope,’ and I said, ‘Here we go,’ ’’ Sigsbury said.

Cathedral was on its way to its first Super Bowl since 1994.

“It was the shorts, man,’’ Sigsbury said, breaking into a huge grin. “I’m going to keep them on for now.’’

Sigsbury won’t change his game-day garb now that Cathedral (12-0) is on the threshold of its first undefeated season and first Super Bowl title.

“It could be snowing and you know that’s exactly what he’s going to wear,’’ said Sigsbury’s wife, Courtney, daughter of Woburn coach Rocky Nelson. “He’s a very, very superstitious man. He’ll see a black cat cross a road and he will not go down that road again. It’s the truth. He’ll wear the same socks, he’ll wear the same shorts, everything. He’ll do the same thing, he’ll eat at the same places.’’

Sigsbury even had Cathedral’s bus driver take a certain route to Reading High because of a superstition he had about an optional route. “Saw a black cat cross that street once,’’ Sigsbury said, sheepishly, after being the last to disembark the bus, as is his custom, from his seat on the right front row.

“One thing during the years Duane and I worked together with Dave Blanchard, Tom Kasprzak, Rob DiLoreto, all of us over the years working together at different times, we were all loaded up with superstitions,’’ said Reading coach John Fiore. “I’m not surprised in the least that he has a few going now, so that’s great. We’re really happy for him and I’m really enjoying the fact that he’s doing well.’’

Cathedral’s success is not owed just to Sigsbury’s superstitions, but to the structure and discipline he instilled in the program.

“Duane has been a teacher at our school for four years now, so when I came in as AD three years ago, I got to know him,’’ Jimmy Lynch said. “I knew he had an extensive football résumé. The former headmaster and I were really interested in what he could bring to the school.

“We wanted to instill discipline and structure in the program and build the program. When he started the offseason workouts, then through the preseason camps and the start of the season, all the kids started coming together and really rallying around him and he started pretty much making magic happen. It’s amazing what he’s done with the program.’’

Sigsbury set down a strict set of rules. Jewelry was banned in the locker room, as was wearing hats. Players had to maintain a satisfactory grade-point average and attend study halls for 1 1/2 hours after practice. Curfew the night before games was enforced with calls to players’ homes by Sigsbury.

“That was the No. 1 thing that I felt when I took the job back in April that needed to change,’’ Sigsbury said. “It was discipline and how the other kids showed respect to themselves and others and to the game of football. Once we got that in line, football is football. We can always teach kids how to block and tackle and teach them the X’s and O’s, but we have the good Jimmies and Joes. And we have some very good ones.’’

In turn, the Panthers have a coach with an indomitable spirit who coaches two periods of physical education a day, works as the director of the school’s planning center (a disciplinary office), and coaches the football team and Manchester-Essex boys’ basketball team.

“Duane brings a whole lot of enthusiasm everywhere he goes and everything he tries,’’ Fiore said. “We were very confident he would be in the playoffs the minute he got the job. He’s got boundless energy for his team and he has fun doing it, too.’’

So it was little wonder why Sigsbury never abandoned hope, even in his team’s bleakest moment. He never allowed the prospect of losing to enter his mind.

“No, not really,’’ he said. “I never allowed it to get in there. I fought it to the end. I fought it to the very end.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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