Even high school football players with boundless energy and ambition get sore legs and limbs, and a dialed-down approach has helped the area teams still standing remain standing – without wobbling.
Gone are the intense contact drills in practice to remain gritty, mean and lean – the Oklahoma drills, the bear crawls, the habitual smashing into a sled to the point of shoulder pulverization. This is especially true for the programs that engage in up to six weeks of postseason play after playing 10 regular-season games.
The CIF Northern California Regional championship games are Friday and Saturday night at home sites, and good health has been paramount in the journey. None of the area’s remaining teams have lost a key player to injury.
“When you’re playing so many extra weeks, you have to be smart about practice,” said Folsom coach Kris Richardson, whose 14-0 Bulldogs host Central of Fresno on Friday night in a Division I-AA contest. “You spend the offseason getting your body ready, and as the season wore on, we adjusted. You don’t spend as much time conditioning. There’s a lot of material to go over on the whiteboard and on film.
“We’ll have 10-15 minute spurts of going full speed, but we’re not big about taking guys down hard to the ground. It’s about keeping the kids fresh. We want our kids tough and intense, but we don’t need to beat the snot out of them in practice to get that.”
Said Folsom safety Tanner Ward, “Football is intense but you don’t have to go 24/7 with it. We need rest.”
A chance to win a NorCal championship is reason enough for athletes to be motivated, but mundane practices can lead to mundane results, coaches say. So they liven things up.
In Auburn, Joey Montoya, who is in his 11th season coaching Placer (12-1), is preparing for a Division IV-AA title game in Salinas on Friday. Last week, Montoya ordered up competition sessions to keep things lively, including a one-on-one drill where linemen went out for passes.
“Those are always a hit,” Montoya said with a laugh. “Everyone has a good time with that. It’s a long season. Luckily for us, the kids are pretty jacked up and excited. Most teams are feeling tired or emotionally spent, but we’re thrilled to be alive. But the times of grinding on our kids is over for the year. We’re too far into this to drive our kids into the ground. We’re refining, staying together, staying fresh, enjoying all of this. And you need some laughs in practice this time of year.”
For old-school coaches such as Terry Logue and Scott Savoie at Bear River (11-3), ferocity and tackling are forever a staple for the early sessions of fall practices. But the Bruins have taken a cautious approach as the program prepares for its first NorCal contest.
“We do very few hitting drills during the season, just two days, and we’re still keeping our kids up – thud drills,” said Savoie, whose Bruins play at Fortuna for the Division V-A title game.
“Don’t get me wrong. We are not a ‘country club’ program that takes it easy all week long. Our kids work hard, and being physical is a big part of who we are as a program. On top of every scouting report that has been given out weekly over the past 25 years here, the same three goals appear: be tougher, better prepared and be better conditioned.”
Bear River practices are usually completed in 2 hours, 15 minutes, and not always in pads. A lot can be accomplished by reviewing and repetition.
Strength and conditioning has been a year-round element for Granite Bay, fresh off the program’s sixth section championship. The Grizzlies now seek their second NorCal title since 2012 when they host Pittsburg in the Division I-A final on Saturday.
The Grizzlies (12-2) have played more games than the Pirates (8-2), who had two games canceled due to excessive heat or smoke and also had a bye in the North Coast Section playoffs.
Ernie Cooper started the strength program at Granite Bay, won five section banners as head football coach and still runs the weight program as the school’s freshman coach. Jeff Evans, in his third year as head coach, said his players are in shape, and they’re fresh and eager. Nothing, he said, dulls a season more than a roster of fatigued players.
“Ernie and I have an athletic P.E. class where we lift all season,” Evans said. “Our practice regimen stays pretty consistent throughout the season. We do not pound on each other too much. We practice safe tackling but we avoid going to the ground and generally operate at a ‘thud’ speed. We also have dedicated support staff that work with our kids through injury and wear and tear.”
And the coaches? They’re more gassed than the players. Of course, they’re much older, and have more things going on – teaching, parenting, coaching.
“The coaches don’t have it so easy,” Evans said with a laugh. “We rely on living vicariously through our players and the support of our families. It is a tiring process but it is all worth it when you get to see the kids achieve something special. Sometimes, the memories are better than the experience. We do not take it for granted.”
Northern California Regional championships
Friday games are 7:30 p.m. and Saturday games are 6 p.m.
North: Central, Fresno (12-1) at Folsom (14-0), Friday
South: Helix (12-1) at Oaks Christian (12-2), Friday
North: Pittsburg (8-2) at Granite Bay (12-2), Saturday
South: Paraclete (13-1) at Narbonne (10-3), Saturday
North: Serra (11-2) vs. Tulare Union (13-0), Friday
South: Cajon (13-1) at Rancho Verde (12-2), Friday
North: Saint Francis (9-4) at Manteca (12-2), Saturday
South: Aquinas (14-0) vs. Grace Brethren (12-2), Saturday
North: Marin Catholic (12-0) at Shasta (11-1), Saturday
South: Quartz Hill (13-1) vs. Bishop Diego (13-1), Saturday
North: Sutter (12-1) at Half Moon Bay (13-0), Saturday
South: Steele Canyon (10-4) at El Modena (12-2), Saturday
North: Placer (12-1) at Salinas (11-2), Friday
South: Crenshaw (10-3) at El Camino (8-5), Friday
North: Milpitas (12-1) at Campolindo (10-4), Saturday
South: San Joaquin Memorial (11-2) at Southwest EC (13-0), Saturday
North: McClymonds (12-0) at East Nicolaus (13-0), Friday
South: Big Bear (13-1) vs. Golden West (11-2), Friday
North: Bear River (10-3) at Fortuna (12-2), Saturday
South: Monte Vista (8-5) vs. Katella (13-1), Saturday
North: St. Patrick-St. Vincent (11-1) at Strathmore (14-0), Friday
South: Caruthers (12-0) vs. Orange (12-2), Friday
North: Galileo (9-2) at Rio Vista (9-3), Saturday
South: Huntington Park (11-3) vs. Vincent Memorial (11-2), Saturday
Championship: De La Salle (11-1) vs. Mater Dei (14-0) at Sacramento State, Dec. 16, 8 p.m.