Veteran high school football coaches look ahead, back on training camp
Western Pennsylvania's veteran football coaches know what Monday means.
With the start of high school football camp, the season is on.
“It's my 43rd year, and during the first day I'm thinking, ‘How are we going to get all of this in?' ” Norwin coach Art Tragesser said.
Norwin's first day of camp involves three practice sessions, starting at 7 a.m., in an attempt to avoid the heat.
“They better be excited,” Tragesser said. “I mean, it's the first day of the season, so if they're not excited on the first day, they're not going to be excited.”
After a winless 2011 season, Tragesser knows Norwin has work to do. In nearly half a century of coaching, he has witnessed players start camp the same way every year.
“The intensity is usually high the first practice,” he said. “The kids are excited, everyone's excited and gung ho. After they start practicing three times a day, they have scrimmages and stuff, they're getting beat up and they're sore. You expect it to have a little bit of a drop-off.”
Players and coaches learn how to manage expectations throughout the week.
“They're putting a tremendous amount of energy into it, and that's where the coaches have to adjust and adapt. You can't go out there and go 100 percent for three practices every single play,” Tragesser said.
At the start of camp for Bishop Canevin — a team that was undefeated in the WPIAL Class A Eastern Conference last season and went 11-1 overall — coach Bob Jacoby doesn't cut his players any slack.
“We put five weeks in before camp, really stressing conditioning, so we expect everybody who is here to be in great shape the first day,” Jacoby said.
For the Crusaders, football camp is a period of growth and preparation for Week 1.
“I think it's important for young kids who have not experienced it before because they're going to feel extremely sore the next day. They've got to know the difference between feeling sore and feeling injured,” Jacoby said.
Like other coaches, he has seen changes in the way camp practices are conducted, especially when it comes to safety and awareness.
“Forty-five years ago, you didn't get much of a drink in practice; now you're getting a drink every 10 or 15 minutes,” he said.
Tragesser, too, has watched the idea of toughness evolve during his career, which includes head coaching stints at Jeannette and Penn-Trafford.
“When I first started coaching, you didn't get water,” he said. “I've come all the way through to where you didn't have water and when you got hurt, you just got up, to where we are today, where the kids get water on demand. Everyone has learned and picked up on things.”
Football camps today also involve a higher number of athletic trainers and coaching staffs rather than relying on the head coach for everything, Tragesser added.
The offseason also plays a bigger role, with conditioning and weight training starting soon after the PIAA championships in December for some teams.
Summer passing camps and workouts allow coaches to install their systems and get teaching before players report to camp.
For North Hills players, there will be no surprises.
“Before we get to camp, we talk about expectations, we talk about what it takes to be a player, we talk about playing time and what you have to do to earn a spot,” coach Jack McCurry said.
Players start the first day in full gear and take no time jumping into things.
“We have high expectations, but we've been practicing and conditioning throughout the summer, at the weight room and at the football field,” McCurry said.
In 35 seasons, the biggest change McCurry has made is using film as a teaching tool. Each day, he films practice and reviews it with the team.
At Upper St. Clair, which went 11-2 and was WPIAL Class AAAA runner-up last season, coach Jim Render prefers sticking with the basics when the pads finally go on.
“In high school football, it's a lot of teaching and a lot of individual skill work,” he said. “We always start with the fundamentals of blocking and tackling.
“There have always been changes, but I'm still a big believer that football is blocking and tackling, and the people that do that the best usually win.”
Render, who has coached for 34 seasons, is guided by a simple approach.
“It's like building a house. You start with the small parts and you build with the bigger parts,” he said. “We start out doing individual work and then we do group work and then we finish up with team work.”
Either way, the molding starts Monday.
“There's always a lot to teach in high school football,” Render said. “They're not finished products, so they're starting fresh.”
Meredith Qualls is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-5637.