GREENWICH — When he learned that John Marinelli was hired as the Greenwich football coach, Bryan Hocter foresaw a golden opportunity.
“Once he got the job I called and asked if he had a need for a defensive coordinator,” said Hocter, who at the time was an assistant at Staples. “I saw the things he did offensively at New Canaan and knew he’d duplicate that if not make his offense even more explosive, and I knew in my heart it was something I wanted to be a part of.”
The two had a prior relationship when Hocter was the head coach at Stamford and Marinelli was the offensive coordinator with the Rams.
“The first thing I saw as a young coach was a veteran guy like him who was a head coach and understands the pressures and all the things that come with being a head coach,” Marinelli recalled. “Having a guy like that to bounce ideas off. When I got hired I was immediately thinking of the defensive staff. I figured I could handle the offensive stuff. When I sat down and talked with him, our strategies, our ideas, the way we saw the field from a whiteboard standpoint were very similar.”
Marinelli hired Hocter as one of the first members of his staff. When the Cardinals take the field tomorrow night for their Class LL quarterfinal game against New Britain, the results of their partnership will be on full display. While the offense has been perhaps the biggest constant since Marinelli took over four years ago, the defense has quickly caught up.
On which side of the ball are the Cardinals strongest? Call it a pick-em game.
“He now has these kids playing at a high level because they grew up in the system,” Marinelli said of Hocter. “Everyone talks about an offensive system but we have a true defensive system too. He spends time with the subvarsity coaches so they’re doing the same things, calling things the same way, running the same blitz schemes and coverages in the back end.”
The Cardinals allowed 248 points in Marinelli’s first season, four years ago. They finished with a 5-5 record.
Greenwich has given up 41 points so far. It is 10-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state polls entering the postseason.
“We’ve played very well defensively,” Hocter said. “To my surprise, I thought last year we were very good on defense but this year we’re even better, which is a credit to the kids. Learning how to work and learning how to practice. Learning how to study film and learning in game what mindset they have to have. They go out and compete and play extremely hard.”
Hocter’s fingerprints are all over his unit, in large part because of the autonomy Marinelli gives his staff.
“He does a really great job of letting coaches coach,” Hocter said. “He takes care of all the administrative work and things of that nature. We just focus on football.”
In the second season, Greenwich allowed just 1.7 yards per rush. They made the jump to a 7-4 mark, losing to Darien in the opening round of the state playoffs. The losses came to teams that either won a CIAC title or played in the final.
Still, the rebuild was not complete.
“If you can stop the run you can be successful,” Marinelli said. “We saw it then. We’re good at stopping the run, our scheme is good, the kids are great, now how do you fix the back end? Coverage is so much more diverse than up front.”
The Cardinals went 12-0 last year before losing to the Blue Wave in the state final.
Of all his attributes, Hocter’s most notable work is the way he has developed players who arrived with him at Greenwich. No player is more representative than Mozi Bici, who recently set the state record with eight sacks in a game against Ridgefield and has had as good a season as any FCIAC player.
“He’s the best person for the defense,” Bici said. “He’s aggressive, he’s a master motivator, he comes out with fire every day in practice. He treats every day like it’s a game day. He works hard at his craft. He brings the aggressiveness out of all us. He gets us all rattled and we’re ready to play.”
Hocter was at Stamford for 12 years, the last four as head coach, before going to Staples for three seasons.
“I think like anything else the more you coach, the more you evolve and the more you learn,” Hocter said. “The more you adapt, the more you learn how to really get along with your players. I would consider myself a players’ coach. Having a strong relationship with the kids is really important to me. I think it pays dividends because the players know that you care about them as individuals and they will play even harder for you as opposed to not having that relationship.”
Marinelli said ultimately Hocter gets everything out of his players because of the way they are treated.
“He knows how to challenge kids when they need to be challenged,” Marinelli said. “He knows how to love them when they need to be loved. He knows the right things to say and chooses his coaching wisely. He does a good job of not calling anybody out. They want to play for him because they know he cares.”