Fundamentals and a little fun on first day of high school football practice
“Even when you’ve been doing it a lot of years, that first day, you still get butterflies in your belly, an adrenaline rush and excitement to get football going,” Gildersleeve said shortly after separating his team into positions for the first two-a-day practice of the season.
Without pads or hitting for the first three days of practice, fundamentals and technique dominate drill sessions.
“When you’re in a new program for the first year coming in and you’re doing a brand new offense, brand new defense, brand new special teams, everything is from scratch,” said Gildersleeve. “When you approach it from this level, you approach it from square one like you’re teaching kids how to play ball for the first time.”
X's and O's are only a portion of what Gildersleeve tries to teach his players. During breaks he preaches brotherhood and family, referring to his players as a “band of brothers.”
“I’m a huge attitude guy. I believe in teaching attitude just as much as we teach blocking and tackling,” said Gildersleeve. “When you’ve got 11 guys out on that field, it’s 11 as one. If one guy breaks down we all break down.”
After telling his players to rest up and rehydrate before the day’s second practice, Gildersleeve congratulates his seniors for completing their last first practice and reminds them to leave it all on the field.
“We come here every day fired up ready to go,” said senior tight end John Haarer. “It drives me crazy that we haven’t had these coaches all four years I’ve been here.”
12:01 A.M. - WILLOW RUN HIGH SCHOOL It’s midnight. Do you know where your children are?
If your child plays for the Willow Run football team, he’s at practice -Â or, at least he should be. Willow Run coach Rufus Pipkins implemented a midnight practice for the first time, and some players might not have known what they were in for.
“I think some of the younger kids thought it was gonna be a sleepover,” Pipkins reflected in a telephone interview conducted Monday afternoon. “The varsity kids knew what they were up against, but a lot of the younger kids thought it was gonna be a time to eat hot dogs and have fun. But it got real intense before it was over.”
Besides getting an early start on the new football season, Willow Run’s midnight practice was an attempt by Pipkins to take players out of their comfort zones. They return to a more traditional two-a-day practice schedule (7 a.m. and noon) Tuesday.
“You try to make them do things they don’t really wanna do,” he said. “One kid, during the regimen, made a comment that we’re probably the only team working out, but they don’t realize a lot of other teams across the state are taking advantage of their first chance to get started.”
Willow Run, which became an independent team when the Mega Conference dissolved, is coming off two consecutive 5-4 seasons after a long string of losing seasons. Pipkins is looking for any edge that could drive Willow Run into the playoffs this year -Â even if it means pushing back bedtime.
“Expectations are pretty high, and we have a more relaxed schedule,” Pipkins said.
1:10 P.M. - SALINE HIGH SCHOOL Ten minutes into its second session of the day, Saline players are split into stations and crisply running position-specific drills.Hornet coach Mike Glennie admits you can’t tell much about a team until it puts on pads - on Thursday, by MHSAA rules - but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to accomplish in these early days of practice.
Until the hitting starts, he says, the focus is what’s going on inside players’ helmets.
“There’s more than 600 teams in the state of Michigan that start today, but what’s going to make the difference? It’s attention to detail, it’s the fine points, the mental part of the game and football IQ,” Glennie said. “Physically, we’ll see. But mentally we’re doing pretty well.”
Glennie says his squad - offensive players wearing yellow jerseys and the defense in blue on this muggy afternoon - may not be the most athletically gifted in the state. But, he says, they can make up for that with the intangibles the coaching staff started teaching Monday morning.
“So much of the game isn’t the playing of the game. We’re trying to teach concepts understanding why they’re supposed to be where they’re supposed to be,” Glennie said. “When it’s time to play, they need to just play.”
1:30 P.M. - YPSILANTI LINCOLN HIGH SCHOOL An early 10-minute rain became distant memory as Lincoln’s players struggled to forget the heat -Â as well as their program’s losing tradition -Â on the first day of a new season.
Lincoln ended a 30-game losing streak in the first week of 2008 when it defeated Tecumseh, 36-22. But the Railsplitters lost nearly half its starters to injury and failed to win another game, finishing 1-8.“It’s frustrating, because we really weren’t able to show how much the program has improved,” third-year Lincoln coach Chris Westfall (left) said. “By Week 8, it was like ‘same old Lincoln,’ which really wasn’t fair to these kids.”
Lincoln is loaded with upperclassmen who want to make up for a lost season. Senior Terrance North didn’t need any time to think about what he wants to do this year. “Win!” the 6-foot-3, 295-pound left tackle shouted, as if asked the sum of one-plus-one. “(Last season) wasn’t fun at all -Â losing games didn’t feel right.”
As if turning around the program weren’t motivation enough, Lincoln on Oct. 9 will play Ypsilanti High, which has joined the Southeastern Conference. The two teams have never played before.
“I’m glad we’ll have Lincoln-Ypsilanti, because the kids will get excited about it,” said Westfall, who spent more than a decade around the Pioneer-Huron rivalry as an assistant coach for Pioneer, and knows what a strong rivalry can do for a program.
Mostly, though, Lincoln’s players are excited for the chance to show how much they’ve improved from the team that lost 30 games in a row.
“I’m ready to win some games,” senior linebacker Ryan Bottorff said. "We’re here to show Lincoln the new Lincoln.”
7:25 P.M. -- ANN ARBOR PIONEER HIGH SCHOOL With a little imagination, the early evening breeze made Pioneer’s Hollway Field feel more like late September than the first round of two-a-days. Players’ execution seemed in mid-season form as well.
“Our kids, they understand what we’re doing and what we’re trying to do, so it does look a little bit as though we’ve been here before,” said Pioneer head coach Jeremy Gold. “But trust me, there’s a lot of mistakes going on out there. It is just the first day.”
Expectations are high for Gold’s squad, which went 7-3 last year and returns a bevy of talent from a Southeastern Conference Red Division championship team.
“We’ve not been an elite program in the state of Michigan for some time now, we’re trying to get back there. We think we have a good group to get back to that status,” said Gold. “The kids still understand we’ve got a ways to go.”Despite all of Pioneer’s returning experience, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Pioneer's first day was the new kid on the block, Ricardo Miller (right). The senior wide receiver, who recently moved from Orlando and has committed to play for the University of Michigan next year, wasn’t quite acclimated to all the Pioneer terminology yet, but his physical talents stood him apart.
“I think he’s fitting in pretty good. He’s got to learn what we’re doing, so that’s going to take some time, but he’s familiar with the spread offense so I don’t think that’s going to take too much time,” said Gold.
8:33 P.M. - CHELSEA HIGH SCHOOL Shadows from the press box at Jerry Niehaus Field have long since crossed the width of Chelsea’s multi-purpose field when coach Brad Bush instructs his 70-member varsity squad to take knees at midfield. By the time the post-practice meeting breaks and the field is clear of players and equipment, the sun has disappeared behind a tree line to the west.
Bush and his staff moved their two-a-day practices into the evening on an experimental basis five years ago and have stuck with it ever since.
Citing research that claims kids are most receptive to learning between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., Bush starts the day with a noon team meeting. After a 1:30 p.m. practice, the team stays at the school for dinner and hits the field again afterward.
There are plenty of other reasons for the twilight schedule.
“You’re going to get that cooler practice either early in the morning or late in the evening. We tried this - the kids are way more awake, you don’t have to deal with dew on the balls, we don’t have any issues with kids being late,” Bush said. “As a coach, I’d like to get here early in the morning and get after it, but for the kids I think this is a better deal.”
Even if there was no solid rationale, who would question any of the Bulldogs methods? The team is 30-6 over the past three seasons with three consecutive trips to the Division 3 regional finals.
Led by Michigan State-bound tailback Nick Hill, Bush thinks his team is in a position for another strong season. But he’s waiting to have a couple weeks of practice behind him to form a solid opinion.
“The game really doesn’t really start until Thursday,” Bush said, referring to the first day teams can practice in full pads. “There are a lot of guys that look great without pads that end up struggling and some guys that look bad in shorts and T-shirts that look great in pads.”