DANVILLE -- San Ramon Valley High boys lacrosse players beamed and radiated success after an emotional win over rival Monte Vista on May 9 which clinched the East Bay Athletic League title.
Amid the swirl of excitement, players gathered around Wolves assistant Todd French, seated in a wheelchair, for photographs. Everything seemed perfect -- a team and its inspirational figure in complete harmony.
San Ramon Valley's decisive 16-8 victory saw the Wolves put into practice what coach French has long preached: "Give 100 percent. No excuses."
A teary-eyed French, 48, smiled broadly as the victory scene unfolded. He praised the team's commitment and drive. French, you see, is undergoing treatment for Stage IV lung cancer, the most advanced form of the disease.
French's condition has touched the Wolves lacrosse family deeply and added a poignant reality to a successful season.
San Ramon Valley (11-8), the No. 2 seed, is competing this week in the North Coast Section Division I playoffs.
"This is the most inspirational year in the history of our program, and it's all about Coach French and his battle and his fight and his commitment to this team and our players," Wolves head coach Peter Worstell said.
"I've never, ever seen anything like it. This is a coach that gets lifted out of a car every night; put in a wheelchair; wheeled out to practice; spends two hours out in practice, whether it's raining or good weather. It's unbelievable."
Worstell has known French for more than a decade, going back to the early Diablo Scorpion Lacrosse Club days. French keeps telling him there's no place he'd rather be than on the sidelines.
Niko Souza, a Wolves captain headed to Furman, credits French with establishing more than a team, but a family of brothers.
"I first was given the special opportunity to meet and be coached by him in sixth grade, and ever since then he has been a coach, a role model, a mentor, and a close friend to my family and I," Souza wrote via email. "No matter what it is or whom it is directed to, he puts passion, wisdom, and fire into his words and actions."
Throughout his ordeal, the Danville community has held its beloved coach French in its warm embrace, including raising funds to help pay for his medical treatment. San Ramon Valley assistant Drew Nichols is seemingly always by his side.
Worstell said the Wolves' season has been dedicated to French, adding that the players are witnessing something "incredible and inspiring each and every night, and it's not easy for them."
Former Wolves star Michael Tagliaferri, now a sophomore midfielder at North Carolina ,considers French a mentor who has helped shape his life.
"Coach French is one of the few people in this world who honestly and full-heartedly puts others before himself," said Tagliaferri, whose brother Peter is a Wolves' standout. "A few years ago he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. He had every right to take a step back and focus on himself and his family, but that is not the type of guy that he is. He made no excuses. He never complained once about his situation, and if you didn't know him you would never know anything was wrong.
"Instead of taking a step back, he sacrificed his time even more for the community, giving his heart and soul to the players he coached and never asking for anything in return."
French's coaching career includes coaching the San Ramon Valley Thunderbirds football team, numerous lacrosse all-star teams and junior varsity football at San Ramon Valley. Currently, he coaches the 3d Select Northern California Lacrosse club team, which travels across the country.
The talented Wolves team features French's son, Austin, who has orally committed to the University of Denver. Austin's brother Cole, a seventh grader, is a standout lacrosse player and football quarterback.
Souza shared one of French's memorable speeches to the Wolves.
"'You can't go through life as an individual, boys,'" Souza wrote of French's talk. "'You guys are a team, and the only way you will overcome adversity is with each other. You fight with the guy standing right next to you and grind until time is out. That's lacrosse, boys. That's life.'"
Contact Matt Schwab at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at twitter/schwab_matt.