Women's team has a distinct Montgomery College flavor
Laurie DeWitt/The Gazette
Former Montgomery College assistant coach Jim Tench has brought three other former Montgomery College coaches to the staff of the D.C. Divas of the National Women's Football League. Tench is the Divas offensive line coach.
There is something about the game of football that makes Jim Tench feel complete. Whether it's the camaraderie, the feeling of accomplishment, the hard work, the long hours, the smell of sweat mixed with grass - Tench can't seem to stay away.
When the football program at Montgomery College folded after the 2002 season, Tench, a defensive line coach there for eight years, thought he would take a year off from the sport that he loved so much.
That didn't happen.
His plans changed one day while watching television. He saw an advertisement for the D.C. Divas, Washington's professional women's football team, playing in the National Women's Football Association.
The next thing he knew, he was standing on the sidelines of the team's practice field in Landover coaching football again.
"The program was over with and I didn't have anything to do and I saw this," said the 42-year-old Tench, who works as a behavior technician at the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore. "I thought I'm not going to be coaching this year so maybe I'll do something around the edges for my coaching fix. I guess as a coach I'm a lifer because this will be my 24th season."
Tench, who played offensive guard at Suitland High and then at Montgomery College, got his start as a football coach in 1980 for the Forestville Boys Club. He then spent time coaching at Suitland, Bladensburg, Good Counsel, Gallaudet University (D.C.) and Northwestern High before he found his way to Montgomery College in 1995.
Just like he did in his previous coaching stints, Tench has made an impact with the Divas.
Soon after he joined D.C. as the offensive line coach in the summer of 2003, Tench sat down with head coach Ezra Cooper and told him the team needed to focus more on running the ball.
"Last year we became a power running team because when I came on I told him [Cooper] I thought the easiest thing to do was to run the ball," said Tench. "I said, 'Football, in my estimation, always has been and always will be a running game. When you get your running game going everything else falls into line.'"
Tench's plan worked.
Donna Wilkinson, an Olney resident and the Holton-Arms girls volleyball coach, led the way on the ground with a record 1,267 yards and 13 touchdowns in 10 games.
The running game was near perfect and the much-improved Divas finished the year off 8-2 and earned a berth in the NWFA playoffs. But something was still missing so Tench approached Cooper once again at the end of the season.
Bringing back 'The Band'
Tench was at first skeptical of the level of play he could expect from female football players. But his misgivings were quickly erased. He realized the Divas had talent, enough to be one of the league's top teams. But he also knew they lacked the coaching experience needed to take the team to that level.
With Cooper's approval, Tench decided it was time to bring back "The Band." He soon got on the phone calling some of his buddies who coached with him at Montgomery College.
Vince Spigone, a defensive coordinator with the Knights for two years and a long-time friend of Tench, began coming to watch D.C. practices and games during the 2003 season.
When Montgomery College's program ended, Spigone retired from football but when Tench asked him to join the Divas' coaching staff he jumped right back into the sport.
"I was retired so I didn't have nothing to do so it seemed like something neat," said Spigone, who started coaching football in 1979 for the boys club in Landover. "Actually, I thought it was going to be a joke but our women can play. I have the utmost respect for them."
The next coach Tench recruited was Jason White, who played at Montgomery College in 1995 and spent two years as the defensive line coach and two years as the defensive coordinator at the Rockville junior college.
After Montgomery closed its doors to football, White found his way to Bowie State University where he is currently the defensive line coach. When Tench asked White to help out as the assistant offensive line coach for the Divas, he didn't hesitate.
The final coach on Tench's list was Fred Stokes.
Stokes had competed at Montgomery before he joined West Virginia University as a tailback. After graduation, Stokes returned to Rockville to help out as the running backs coach.
Stokes' road after Montgomery carried him to the Norfolk Nighthawks, an Arena League team. He scouted and recruited there before coming back to his job as a Prince George's County firefighter.
Once during the 2003 season, Stokes saw Tench coaching the Divas at the Landover Hills Recreational Park on his way to visit family.
"My parents live a couple of blocks away," said Stokes. "One day I came home to visit my parents and I was coming up Warner Avenue here and I saw an individual with a stance and I was just like, 'I know that stance.' So I turned back around and came into the parking lot and said 'Jim.' He turned around and I said, 'I'll be damned.' I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'I'm coaching.' We got to talking for a little bit and that was it. He called me at the end of the season and said, 'I've got a proposition for you', and I was like, 'What is it?' He said, 'I want to bring The Band back together.'"
Tench, Spigone, Stokes and White call their reunion with the Divas "The Band," a reference to the Blues Brothers movie in which a band tries to bring back its members on a mission.
Their focus now is getting the D.C. Divas a NWFA championship.
The college years
At one time the members of "The Band" were a part of the success at Montgomery College and each came away with invaluable coaching experience and knowledge working under the legendary Phil Martin.
Even though the Knights had fallen off in their final two seasons (going a combined 7-11), the program was one of the best in the nation at the junior-college level over the years.
The school's all-time record was 315-154-13 and 132-65-9 during Martin's 21-year tenure.
The Knights played for the National Junior College Athletic Association national championship twice - once in 1986 and again in 1990. The program was also responsible for sending 188 players on to four-year colleges.
Under Martin's direction and leadership, Tench, Spigone, White and Stokes became experts of football.
"He taught me how to be a college football coach," said Tench of Martin. "He taught me how to be organized and meticulous, the right way to run a practice and how to organize a team and how to do everything the right way. All four of us came along under a guy like Phil Martin and we know the right way to do things. We don't know any other way but the right way to do things."
The addition of the foursome has clearly made a difference for the Divas this season.
After winning 16 games in their first three seasons, the Divas have become a force this year with a perfect record of 8-0. With a 52-16 victory over the Baltimore Burn Saturday at Eastern High in D.C., the Divas secured the No. 1 seed in the NWFA's Northern Division and home-field advantage for the upcoming playoffs, which begin June 26.
When Cooper took on the head-coaching responsibilities for the D.C. Divas in their inaugural year (2001), he had three other coaches along side him.
Now, thanks in large part to "The Band", he has 13.
"I never thought I could get 13 well-rounded football coaches to come out and coach women's football," Cooper said. "I can honestly say that. When I first tried it was such a struggle. We are really lucky in that we have so many experienced coaches. A lot of experienced football coaches still don't think women should be playing football so we feel very fortunate in that we have a lot of people with this kind of experience."
"The coaches' experience has been the biggest thing," said Wilkinson. "When you have young or rookie coaches we play like that as a team. Now that we have got a lot of veteran coaches we're learning so much and bringing the college experience to our game is really helping a lot too."
D.C. now has coaches for specific positions, and the players have had the benefit of working in small groups and focusing in on their particular roles on the field.
Making the switch, though, from junior-college football to women's football has not been an easy one for "The Band" members.
"I've had to try not to cuss so much," said Spigone. "You can't talk to them and push them the way you did with kids. They're not kids, they're women."
Unlike men playing professionally or semi-professionally, the Divas have not grown up playing football in junior high, high school and college. Many of them have never played competitively at all.
Most of the Divas' practice time early on this year focused on the basics of football.
"They do a good job of teaching us the game," said Ivy Tillman, an outside linebacker from Woodbridge, Va. "They dumb it down so we can understand it. In the beginning our offense and defense were basic because they had to be but as we learned more then they could make the plays more complex."
Even though the level of play among the women is not nearly as high as junior-college men, the Divas have a pure love for the sport and an uncanny desire to learn.
"It's kind of football the way it used to be," said Tench of women's football. "There are no hidden agendas. None of the kooky stuff you go through sometimes. They just wanted somebody who knew football to coach them and they wanted to learn. They love playing football. Sometimes you'll get kids that have ability in college but I don't know that they love being football players. They know that there is some things they want at the end of it so they'll endure it. Everybody is here because they want to be here because they like to be here and they like to be football players."
Like the D.C. players, the coaches for the Divas don't get paid anything. They do it because they love the sport and they can't stay away.
"Not a dime," said Tench of what he gets paid for working over 15 hours a week with the Divas. "It's all for the love of football. All of us like coaching football and being involved. I'm a lifer. They'll drag me out here to coach when I'm half dead and I'll still do it."
Note: For more information on the D.C. Divas visit www.dcdivas.com.