By Jacob Westendorf
Special to The Rock River Times
When Tony Ambrogio was hired to be the head coach of the Rockford Christian Life Eagles, he knew things would not be easy. The fact that he was replacing the man who started the program in 1998 did not make things any less complicated for the new head coach.
With hard work, and a consistent drive to be successful, however, Ambrogio has transformed the program from one that was a doormat, into one that is on the rise.
Ambrogio was hired in the spring of 2011 to be the first head coach at Christian Life other than Chuck Leonard Sr. Leonard was let go after the Eagles failed to meet high expectations following an 8-2 season the year prior.
As soon as Ambrogio walked through the door, he was ready to make significant changes. In every year of its existence, Christian Life had run a tightly-wound wishbone offense. On his first day as head coach, Ambrogio implemented a wide-open spread offense as a way to take advantage of their versatile playmakers.
“We wanted to become more balanced offensively; we wanted to be able to throw the ball more than we had in the past while keeping the same productive running game we’ve had the last few years,” Ambrogio said.
A difference in the way the program was run was noticeable as soon as Ambrogio took over. The changes were not just on the field, but off the field as well. In the past, offseason programs were seen as mere suggestions from some players, but the message was sent loud and clear that they were going to become a staple in the program.
“I felt, for whatever reason, this program had not lived up to its full potential, and that starts in the offseason,” Ambrogio said. “In previous years, our offseason participation was below 50 percent. Now, we are up over 90. That’s where it all begins.”
Unfortunately, the beginning of Ambrogio’s tenure was met with its fair share of struggles, as they finished 3-6. That, combined with the previous year, marked back-to-back losing seasons for the Eagles for the first time since 2005-2006. Despite the struggles, there was reason for optimism, as there was a talented group of players returning for this season.
One of those talented players was junior quarterback Brady Pond. Pond was a bright spot for the Eagles, despite their struggles as a team. Pond finished the season with more than 1,400 total yards and 17 touchdowns, giving the Eagles the perfect dual-threat quarterback for Ambrogio’s spread offense.
Pond noted, “We made the offense more diverse, and it was tough to learn at first, but once we got the hang of it, we saw all the things we could do within it.”
Behind a diverse group of playmakers around Pond, and Ambrogio pushing all the right buttons, the Eagles took off this season. They finished 8-1 during the regular season behind an aggressive defense and explosive offense that averaged more than 40 points a game. That finish was good for second in the conference, tied the best record in school history, and earned them their second-ever home playoff game.
“It meant a lot to be able to do those things this year,” Ambrogio said. “Our overall goal has been — and always will be — to win, and that is our team motto … to expect to win.”
The season did not end as Ambrogio and the rest of the players had hoped, as they were bounced from the playoffs with a disappointing performance against Freeport Aquin. The Eagles lost that game 44-26, but this season has given them plenty of hope for the future. Pond will be back next season, as will two of his top playmakers in wide receiver Isaiah Jones and slot receiver Cameron Cassaro.
Perhaps more importantly, Ambrogio will be back guiding the program, and the loss to Aquin has only made him hungrier for more.
“This year was nice, but you always want more,” Ambrogio said. “The goals remain big and will only get bigger. I think that this program has the capabilities to win a state championship if we continue to do the things we are doing, and expect to win.”
Football season ended for most at Rockford Christian Life high school Nov. 2, but for Ambrogio and the rest of the people within the program, it is only beginning.
From the Nov. 6-12, 2013, issue