Joe Zander figured he wouldn’t be on the job forever when he took over as head coach of Fall River’s prep football team following the 2014 season.
He had a pretty exact timeline in mind when he first sat down with his new coaching staff.
And it turns out he’s a man of his word.
Zander decided recently that the time was right to resign and on Thursday night he informed his team of that decision, stepping down after a tenure that included the first back-to-back conference titles in school history (2017 and 2018), the first trips to the state quarterfinals and state semifinals (2017) and a boatload of all-Trailways Small Conference players.
Zander said the reason for stepping down following this past season was he wanted to make sure he has enough time for his family.
“I talked to my coaching staff (in 2014 and) I said to them, ‘Hey just so you know, I’m probably only going to do this for four years,’” Zander recalled. “My (two) girls are going to be at that age where they’re going to be in sports and doing a bunch of afternoon activities that I don’t want to miss.
“That’s how it played out.”
Coaches often say their biggest goal is to leave the program in better shape than when they took over, and when Zander took over for Brian Zacho — who resigned when he was promoted to being the sixth-through-12th grade principal at Fall River — the Pirates were coming off a 4-6 record in 2014 and a 46-6 loss to Ithaca in the first round of the WIAA Division 7 playoffs.
Add to that the fact that a big senior class from that 2014 team was lost to graduation, and it was an uphill battle for Zander from the start. But he knew he had a talented freshmen class coming in and in time the Pirates would be back on track.
“I knew we had a special (incoming) class that ended up with me all four years,” Zander said. “We ended up with a record of 29-15. That’s almost two wins to one loss, and we went 2-7 the first year.
“We definitely improved the last three quite a bit.”
The improvement paid its first dividends in 2016, when the Pirates took third in conference at 4-2 and made it back to the playoffs with a 5-4 regular season record before bowing out in round one of the playoffs. It doled out even bigger dividends the next year, when the Pirates won the Trailways Small title with an unbeaten 7-0 record, went 8-1 overall in the regular season and made it all the way to the state semifinals for the first time in program history before the run ended there with an 11-2 record.
“Things that nobody in Fall River school history has ever done,” Zander said. “So, the kids and my coaching staff worked hard and we were rewarded for all that stuff.”
Zander and the Pirates made more history in 2018 when they finished in a three-way tie for the Trailways Small Conference title with Johnson Creek and Oshkosh Lourdes at 6-1 — marking the first time in program history that Fall River won back-to-back conference titles.
Zander credits a lot of the right coaches already being in place when he took over in 2014 for his four-year run of success.
“It was a good staff from when Zacho was coaching and we just played our cards right and adjusted our offense and defense to the kids we had,” Zander said. “We’re a small school, so we adjusted to what we got. That’s what we did and it ended up benefiting us. Yeah, we didn’t get all the way to the state title, but this class and my coaching staff can be proud of the stepping stones we put down to hopefully keep Fall River football on top.”
But while Zander’s time as head coach is done for now, he didn’t rule out the possibility of coming back.
“I’m definitely going to enjoy my family time,” he said. “I guess more or less it’s over, but if a little later down the road when my kids are grown up, there (might) be another chance for me to do it again.”