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Growing up in Benicia, Zach Sims had plenty of battles against East County football teams. He admits there were more losses than wins, but he always respected the talent that came out of the area.

Now the 31-year-old finds himself back in East County. This time, he’s walking around the campus of Freedom High School, learning about the structure of the school and checking out the football team’s facilities.

Sims will be the fourth head varsity football coach for Freedom since the school opened in 1996. He will also serve as a biology and health teacher at the Oakley campus.

“It’s ironic, after all those youth battles, to be coaching in East County, but it’s really exciting,” Sims said. “I could tell just from my interview, this is a first-class district.”

He takes over for Andrew Cotter, who stepped down after three seasons with Freedom. The Falcons made their second straight appearance in the North Coast Section (NCS) Division I championship game in Cotter’s first season. However, Freedom went 4-12 the next two years.

Before his arrival at Freedom, Sims served as the offensive coordinator at College Park High School in Pleasant Hill for two years, where the program went 8-8 during his tenure. Sims was also on staff at St. Patrick-St. Vincent High School in Vallejo when the team won two consecutive NCS titles, with the addition of one Northern California title and a California State Championship.

When Sims coached at College Park, he did so without any skills coaches. Sims handled everything offense, and head coach Mark Spinelli took care of most of the defense.

According to Spinelli, he and Sims were often the last people at St. Pat’s to leave the facility. Sims’ dedication to the game made him stand out, and it was the reason Spinelli eventually decided to bring Sims to College Park.

“His work ethic is fantastic. When he decides to do something, he’s going to do it,” Spinelli said. “He’s not gonna let stuff get in his way. He’s not going to make excuses.”

“Coaching football is more than x’s and o’s,” Sims said. “The teamwork, the camaraderie of the brotherhood and all the off the field things, make the football program work.”

Sims said that even during his days as a youth player in Benicia, he always felt like he played a coaching role in some capacity. He’s always had a knack for teaching. After all, it’s in his blood: his mother is a longtime educator.

“I was like a player coach growing up,” Sims said. “I love teaching and I like the game, so what better way to teach than through football to younger people? And I just went from there, just took my love of football and grew it, and that’s what made me really want to coach.”

Sims is just 31, making him the youngest head football coach in the Bay Valley Athletic League. When applying for jobs, Sims said he was a little intimidated by being such a young head coach candidate. There were even times when he felt discouraged.

During the application process for another head coaching position, Sims asked an administrator what they wanted in a head coach.

The administrator’s answer? According to Sims, the school wanted an adult leading the program. He never heard back from them again.

Sims admits that experiences like that made him feel discouraged, but he always remembered what his dad told him.

“Someday, someone is going to look at that as an asset.”

Eventually, Sims’ father was proved right. Freedom decided to take a chance on him.

“Coach Sims was a standout candidate because his passion for football was evident in his interview, as well as his depth of knowledge of the game,” said Freedom Athletic Director Sandra Torres. “Ultimately it was his organization, program-wide vision, love of sport, and depth of knowledge.”

With the season just three months away, Sims has already decided one of his top priorities will be to create a strong core of young players, while also incorporating a top-notch strength and conditioning program.

“Just get the kids used to developing themselves as athletes, and then from there you take that and establish the system,” Sims said. “With the strength conditioning and with the fundamentals that we’re going to stress, you know you’ll get your system implemented, and hopefully they see some success on the field as well.”

Spinelli predicts that Sims will have a lot of success at Freedom, but only if everyone plays their part.

“His success at Freedom is going to be based on the players’ ability to be coachable,” Spinelli said. “The parents staying out of it and letting him coach, and the administration supporting him in those things. If that happens, Freedom is going to be good.”