Today is the official start of high school football practice for area teams.
And with the regular season just three short weeks away, the anticipation of the season openers is just starting to set in.
But in reality, that date to finally strap on helmets, usually the third Monday in August, is just a formality. For most coaches and players, the season never really ends. In fact, the new season begins almost immediately after the final games are played each November, meaning the sport has taken on an almost NFL-like quality with the concentration on year-round workouts and preparation for the next season.
“If you’re not working at it 12 months of the year in some shape or form, you’re falling behind,” said veteran Carthage coach Sam Millich, whose team is coming off a Section 3 Class A championship season. “Because you know your biggest rivals are. And that if you want to contend on an annual basis, it’s a fact of life.”
The notion that you can prepare for the season a few weeks before training camp starts is now just a myth, as it is now in almost every sport. High school programs are a lot more sophisticated than they were 20 years ago. And that puts a premium on being fully prepared when camp starts, using the three-week practice period to simply tweak the offense and defense instead of using that time to get in shape.
If you’re not in shape when training camp opens, and the dreaded two-a-days begin, it’s too late.
“For myself, I’m thinking about football almost every day of the year,” said Indian River senior lineman Tyler Wright. “We’re either lifting weights, participating in some sort of drill, or just doing some team bonding things almost year-round. It’s a total commitment to the sport, and almost everybody buys into what we’re doing because we’ve been so successful.”
Teams like Carthage, Indian River, General Brown, Immaculate Heart Central and Sandy Creek, last year’s area Section 3 finalists, take great pride in being prepared for whatever may happen during the season. And a lot of that has to do with their out-of-season work on physical training, making sure the personnel fits the offense and defense, and trying to build team chemistry.
For Immaculate Heart Central head coach Paul Alteri, the idea that you have to work year-round, even at the Class C level, is crazy. “You should let kids be kids and not have to work them that hard,” Alteri said. “But the way the sport, even at the high school level, has evolved, it’s a must.”
But Alteri warned, “There has to be a balancing act between the work that has to be done to remain at a high level and working too much. We want them to be students first, then athletes. The worst thing that can happen is they get burned out and aren’t mentally prepared when the real season comes.”
To that end, coaches are cognizant of the fact that their players do have family obligations and other things, such as jobs, that take time away from football preparations. And those other factors help them stay focused when the season begins.
“Most of our off-season work is not mandatory,” Millich said. “I know our team, like a lot of the others, have a lot of three-sport athletes. They have to give time to those sports as well. That’s why we try to coordinate with other coaches as far as workouts and camps are concerned. The last thing we want to do is to turn them against football because we give them too much.”
Carthage senior linebacker Brenden Endrina said he was drawn to the Carthage program when he moved to the area in 2009 because “of their commitment to football. At first, I even heard they didn’t have a program and I looked other places,” he said. “But when I talked to coach Millich and saw his passion and commitment to a great program, I was sold. And I’ve never been disappointed.”
IHC senior Cole Carpenter, one of the most talented quarterbacks in Section 3, said the excitement he draws from playing football is almost unmatched.
“There’s just something about it that demands full concentration and attention,” Carpenter said. “That’s why we work so hard and put in long hours off the field to keep improving.”
But Carpenter is also a talented basketball and lacrosse player who hopes to attend the Air Force Academy. To that end, he’s worked with a personal trainer for a couple of years to make sure his body is prepared for such a grind.
“Football takes the most out of you, for sure,” he said. “But to have a season like we had last year, it’s all worth it.”
Indian River and Carthage both participated in summer passing camps with neighboring teams such as General Brown, Gouverneur, Lowville and Beaver River.
Indian River took 25 players to the Syracuse summer camp, and IHC took part in the CBA camp.
“If you add up all the hours we work in the off-season, it’s amazing,” said Indian River’s Connor Brown. “But we know that if coach wants us to do it, he has a reason. We’re willing to sacrifice certain things to make our program successful.”
Weight room work is especially important in the off-season. And coaches will tell you that’s where they see the biggest improvements from one season to the next.
“Kids want to get stronger and know they have to work at it year-round,” Millich said. “Most coaches will tell you they spend more time supervising the weight room than in any other phase of the game.”
General Brown coach Steve Fisher is well-known for his Sunday weight-room programs during the season and all-year round. Most teams have to share weight rooms with other sports, too, so fitting in sessions becomes a little more complicated.
“Even though we have a lot of multi-sport athletes, most are into specialization,” Millich said. “They do other sports just for fun or to stay in shape. But they know that if they can specialize in football or lacrosse and do well, colleges will take a longer look at them.”
Indian River’s Wright is also a weight man in track. He said a lot of the physical training he does for that sport is similar to football. But football is where his heart lies, and “I’m always willing to put in extra effort to become stronger and quicker,” he said.
At IHC, where the football numbers are continuing to drop, off-season work has become even more important.
“We have to do more with less, which means younger kids are stepping into important roles at a younger age,” said coach Alteri. “That means a bigger commitment to the program and making sure they are ready when we need them.”
And with all of the off-season work behind them, most players are looking forward to the sweat and toil the next few weeks will bring.
“Bring it on,” said Carthage’s Endrina. “We’re ready to go hard for the next three months.”