Don’t tell area high school football coaches that these truly are the dog days of summer. They don’t want to hear about such talk.
Monday marks the commencement of preseason training camps across the state and to suggest that teams are seeking to hit the ground running would be a gross understatement. The importance of the coming week cannot be underscored – albeit for a myriad of reasons.
This select time frame truly represents the one instance during the season when, as Woonsocket head coach Carnell Henderson noted, “you aren’t going 100 miles an hour.” There isn’t an opponent to prepare for at the end of the week, meaning these taskmasters of the gridiron can hit the redo button should they feel something’s not up to specification. There’s comfort in knowing that if something doesn’t work one day, there’s always the next day’s session to further address said area of need.
During the regular season, the luxury of hammering something home just doesn’t exist. Most of the time, coaches and players alike are running downhill, i.e. spending most of the time they’re in the company of one another on the finer points leading up to that week’s kick-off. The sport resembles a CliffsNotes-esque tenor with practices emphasizing key points.
This week, such concerns are non-existent. While the art of conditioning and commitment are surely going to be stressed, pigskin bosses like Henderson, Dave Caito of Tolman and St. Raphael’s Mike Sassi are eagerly looking forward to laying the foundation and starting the team-building process.
“It’s the most important time of year,” Henderson stressed. “For the next two weeks, you ask the kids for their commitment. On the flip side, with some of the coaches being educators, they have the time as well. It gives us an opportunity where we can put the work in as a group and you’re not really pressed and not going to skip any steps for the sake of moving on. Our opponent is us right now.”
“If you don’t prepare and get them in shape, you’re behind the eight-ball and probably in for a long season,” notes Caito, whose Tigers in 2012 will make the seismic jump from Division II to I. “Plus you want the kids to have knowledge of our system.”
Sassi took a more tactical approach regarding the dividends this less-pressurized point of the football calendar can yield.
“You’re putting in the majority of your offensive and defensive plays; there’s going to be plays you’re going to rely on all year,” said the SRA grid boss. “I think it’s an important week for special teams. You don’t know what they’re going to look like until you get to the (Injury Fund) Round Robin scrimmages, but they’re a real important part of the game.”
The R.I. Interscholastic League allows football teams to get a jump-start on its fall sports brethren as no high school athlete can officially kick soccer balls, spike volleyballs or comb cross-country trails as a unit until next Monday, Aug. 20. However, don’t expect to see any hard-nosed hitting if you should happen to drive by one of the local fields. For the first five days of camp, there’s an embargo on player contact.
It officially gets lifted on Saturday as teams such as Tolman and North Smithfield plan on holding intrasquad scrimmages.
Caito believes a coaching staff can accomplish a great deal with players donning helmets and shoulder pads while resisting the temptation of engaging in combative fire. This is a week that’s tailor made for teaching while the coaches partake in evaluation, learning what players are better suited to do what.
“You get a good indication of which kids want to be real football players,” notes Caito. “That’s how you separate the men from the boys by learning who wants to play.”
The beauty of football is that there’s always constant motion – nothing ever stays the same. From the perspective of training camp, a player may start out at tailback before shifting to wide receiver. Evaluating personnel is in a coach’s blood, this discernable trait probably the most critical as teams learn what works and vice-versa.
“You may go a few days during camp and realize ‘I’m a square person in a round hole.’ If something’s not working, you’ll scrap it and go to something else,” Sassi stated.
“We tell the kids to play where they want, but as the week progresses, we’re going to make recommendations where we (as coaches) think you can play,” Caito acknowledged.
“We want to put kids in spots where they can help the team the most,” says Henderson.
The concept of position battles is something that coaches such as Henderson welcome.
“You’ll see coaches at the professional level talk about competition. If you don’t have anybody competing, it’s not going to make that person who’s slotted in that position any better,” said the Woonsocket mentor. “The expectations are there where we’ll have some positions that’ll be highly competitive and that’s a good thing.”
Then there’s the practice schedule. Sassi plans to go double sessions Monday through Friday before giving the players next weekend off. In the downtime between the morning and afternoon gatherings, the St. Raphael players will remain on campus with an eye toward eating/replenishing fluids, catching up on summer reading or immerse themselves further in the playbook.
At Tolman and Woonsocket, the plan is to hold one practice per day that takes place in the afternoon and lasts roughly three hours. Caito and Henderson understand that many of their players have jobs, hence why they believe one lengthy practice is more than sufficient.
Beginning Monday, players and coaches alike will take the first steps – baby ones, mind you – in a journey that both parties hope culminates in playing meaningful football past Thanksgiving.
“During the summer, you never run with a helmet and pads on,” said Henderson. “As soon as those things occur, you up the ante.”
The first possible date in which teams are allowed to conduct scrimmages with other teams is a week from this Thursday, Aug. 23. Thursday, Aug. 30 is when the Injury Fund will take place with Pawtucket’s Max Read Field the site for the following two-quarter dress rehearsals: Lincoln-Cumberland at 5 p.m., St. Raphael-East Providence at 6, Tolman-Central Falls at 7 and Shea-Woonsocket at 8.
Another batch of Injury Fund contests are on tap for Friday, Aug. 31 at Johnston High School. North Smithfield will face Ponaganset while Burrillville tangos with North Providence.
Non-leaguers are on tap for the weekend of Sept. 7-8 with the first league contest set for Sept. 14-15.