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If you’re not strong, you don’t belong

VCA boys pull off inspired upset victory for hospitalized strength coach
By: Nick Pecoraro
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There’s a motto inside the Lion’s Cage – the weight room at Valley Christian Academy – that reads “If you’re not strong, you don’t belong”.

It was dubbed by the Lions’ strength and conditioning coach Brian DeFiebre, whose been a part of the VCA family as a volunteer for the past decade.

DeFiebre says, however, that this kind of ‘strong’ doesn’t necessarily translate to how much you can bench press.

“It’s about mental toughness,” says DeFiebre, whose children graduated from VCA. “You can do 20 times more than you think you’re able to do. You’ve got to dig inside yourself and find that ability that’s in you and pull it out. That’s what I was trying to accomplish with that.”

On Jan. 6, the 54-year-old DeFiebre would have to put that mantra to the test after suffering a stroke that partially debilitated the use of his right arm and frighteningly disrupted his cognitive speech abilities.

“It was pretty scary,” admits DeFiebre, who says he recognized instantly what type of episode he was having.

“I couldn’t find my right arm. I thought it was behind my back,” he says. “I knew I had to take quick action… My speech started faltering. I couldn’t tell (paramedics) what age I was or what year I was born. Inside my brain I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t get the words out correctly.”

The VCA boys varsity basketball team, who is in the midst of one of its worst seasons in recent memory, suffered one of the toughest losses head coach Brad Gunter said he’s ever been a part of the night before to Cristo Rey.

“Suddenly, (the Cristo Rey loss) became really insignificant,” Gunter says.

Gunter and his coaching staff visited DeFiebre in the Intensive Care Unit for each of the four days he was there. Gunter saw firsthand what the stroke had done to DeFiebre’s communicative abilities.

“His speech was not there,” says Gunter. “He knew it in his mind; he could comprehend but he couldn’t communicate. I’d ask him how old he was, and he’d say ‘80’ with confidence, but then he’d say he was born in 1997. By day two, he said he was 67, so he was making progression… By night three, he said he was 54 years old with a big smile. We knew he was going to be alright by then.”

Luckily, DeFiebre says he allowed himself to have a sense of humor, something that his nurses told him would help his progression.

“When Coach Gunter and (VCA assistant coach) Steve Eakes came to visit, we were laughing it up big time. I was able to loosen myself up a little,” DeFiebre says.

Still uncertain of when DeFiebre would be released from the hospital at this point, Gunter had to resume coaching during another tough stretch of what has already been a miserable season for the Lions.

Wanting badly to be out of his hospital room to root on his young Lion trainees, DeFiebre shared a Facebook post to try and motivate the team for their Jan. 10 game against Central Valley California League rival Faith Christian.

It read: “VARSITY BOYS, YOU BETTER BEAT FAITH! IF ANYTHING, DO IT FOR ME!! (Hope that's not too much pressure),” followed by the hashtag: #IfYoureNotStrongYouDontBelong.

Faith Christian at the time was 9-5, unbeaten in three league games and third in the Division VI Sac-Joaquin Section rankings. VCA was just 2-13 and had only beaten Faith once in its last five tries over the past 2 ½ seasons.

But when the ball tipped off, the Lions played inspired, leading by as much as 21 points. But Faith stormed back, hitting 16 triples to take the lead in the closing moments.

VCA senior Drake Williams went to the line and hit two clutch free throws, which tied the team’s season-high point total and gave the Lions a remarkable 83-80 victory.

“(Faith) fought back and took the lead with under a minute left, but the guys answered back and executed to perfection,” said Gunter, who learned that night that DeFiebre had come home from the hospital.

“It all comes down to Thursday,” Gunter said. “To get an upset win on the day he comes home just made our season worthwhile.”

After the game, Gunter called DeFiebre, speaking in a very solemn voice as a bit of a ruse, acting as if the team could not fulfill DeFiebre’s request for a victory.

Then the team got on speaker phone to announce the real result to its strength coach. The room erupted.

“The guys all exploded,” says DeFiebre. “They were yelling, I was yelling… I was thrilled!”

While DeFiebre says he won’t require occupational or physical therapy on his road to recovery, he begins outpatient speech therapy for cognitive training this week.

“I expect to make a complete recovery and exceed all expectations,” he says. “I’m so, so eager to get back to work and get back to training.”

While DeFiebre says there is no timetable for his return to the Lion’s Cage, he has 100 percent confidence that he will.

It is, after all, where he belongs.