Coley Candaele stands by his rules, and one axiom in particular — if you don't practice, you don't start — is non-negotiable in his Vista Murrieta football program.
Doesn't matter who you are (Su'a Cravens). Doesn't matter what the circumstances (a flu bug sidelining his star two-way starter for a practice the week of the Broncos' section title showdown with perennial power Corona Centennial) are.
"We all understood the circumstances that week," said Candaele, who'd quarterbacked and coached Carpinteria to section titles before moving south to Murrieta. "There just wasn't ever a thought process of changing what we do, whether it was changing it for a championship game or changing it for Game 1. It's about consistency."
One thing's for sure: Candaele's Broncos have consistently contended for more than Southwestern League titles since he founded the program, and Vista Murrieta's ninth-year coach finally won the big one this year in his third trip to the CIF Southern Section Inland Division championship, all of it the sum of a carefully-navigated season that vaulted his program among the state's elite and earned Candaele All-Valley Coach of the Year honors.
There were plenty of road hazards along the way, too, from replacing a star at quarterback with a first-year starter, to nurturing an inexperienced offense to surviving a grueling postseason bracket that included two of the state's top teams in undefeated Upland and those vaunted Huskies. None of it, however, threatened the Broncos' path like five forfeited victories stemming from the use of an ineligible player that Candaele and his staff reported to the Southern Section's office at midseason.
Forget about the pursuit of perfection. The Broncos were suddenly sitting on five losses and a potential game-changer in a lockerroom full of impressionable teenagers.
Only Candaele and his staff didn't let the forfeits deter the Broncos from their goal. Sure, their record suddenly had blemishes, but they wouldn't keep the Broncos from a Southwestern League title and a postseason berth, Candaele reminded his players. (Just a state bowl berth, it turned out).
The message was received well, too.
"Things could have went a lot different if not for our coaches being there and motivating us even more," said kicker Tyler Rausa, a two-time All-Valley first-team selection. " ... (Candaele's) biggest strength is the way he communicates and relates to us and motivates us."
Cravens' first impression of Candaele — in the coach's office shortly after transferring into the program two years ago — paints a similar picture.
"He said if you want to be the greatest, you're going to have to listen and do what I say," said Cravens, now a top recruit for the class of 2013. "He said if you don't want me to push you, you have to let me know. Ever since that day, I knew he wasn't about himself. He's about his players."
Candaele's strengths were as present as ever in the championship against Centennial. He and his staff played it safe and lost to Southwestern League rival Chaparral in the 2009 title game and the Broncos were simply overrun by the Huskies last year.
This year? Candaele knew he'd brought a capable team to the title game with Centennial and he bestowed that confidence late in the second quarter when he opted for a shot at a touchdown — unsuccessfully — over a field goal. The decision was tactical as much as it was a confidence-booster.
"We needed 7s," Candaele said. "Our whole philosophy going into the game was we can't kick field goals. ... We wanted to get as far away from Centennial as possible and we had a chance to go up 17 against Centennial in a championship game.
"It was anything but safe."
In the end — after Nick Stevens' game-winning run — Candaele's gutsy decision likely proved to be the difference.
Centennial coach Matt Logan reminded Candaele as much at the Inland Division's end-of-the-year awards meeting: If Candaele had kicked the earlier field goal, the Broncos would have been sitting on a lead on fourth-and-4 near midfield and would have punted the ball to a potent Huskies' offense that was more than capable of moving into range for a game-winning field goal.
"He told me we probably would have lost if we kicked that field goal," Candaele said with a laugh. "And throughout the whole game, I was livid at myself. ... In the end, it turned out to be the right choice."
His prize? A perfect record on the field and his program's first gold-plated plaque, which he clutched late into the night last month.
"It was a numbing feeling," Candaele said. "Just like, 'Wow, did this actually just happen?'"