Empire high school football programs always pushing to prepare

Teams have been lifting weights, running sprints and executing position drills for much of the summer well before the first sanctioned practice next month.|

The North Coast football season does not officially begin until Aug. 11 but that does not mean football isn’t being played at nearly every high school in the area.

Teams have been lifting weights, running sprints and executing position drills for much of the summer well before the first sanctioned practice next month.

“We want them to be physically fit so we condition them. And conditioning them makes them better athletes but it also keeps them from getting injured,” said veteran coach Ed Conroy of Rancho Cotate High School. “I think because of that, we have lessened the injuries we have because kids are in better shape when August double days roll around. To me, it’s vital for the kids.”

It’s been 11 years since the North Coast Section lifted many of the restrictions on off-season football workouts, leaving schools to monitor their own summer programs. The results, coaches say, are fitter athletes better prepared for the rigors of the sport. But some wonder whether the intense focus might be too much for some kids.

“Personally, I have real mixed feelings,” said Jan Smith Billing, assistant commissioner of the North Bay League. “From a safety standpoint, it’s good that kids come into their sport basically in shape and coaches can right away start working on strategies.”

“I just kind of worry about overuse of kids,” she said.

The current rules are relatively straightforward - as long as the school district or principal approves, practices can be held but cannot be mandatory.

Under a new law that goes into effect Jan. 1, full-contact workouts will be banned in the offseason. But many area coaches say they don’t use summer workouts to get kids hitting each other but rather hitting the weights, working on position-specific skills and conditioning.

It wasn’t always this way.

When Conroy started coaching nearly 30 years ago, coach oversight over the summer was minimal.

The result was some athletes would show up in August in top shape and others struggled to hang on during intense sessions of two-a-day practices that are the norm among football squads in the early season.

It is the kids who are most fit who avoid injury, said Calistoga High’s football coach Paul Harrell.

“Definitely for those who take advantage of it, knock on wood, those are the players that seem to have the least injury,” he said. “Just the strengthening. It’s a violent sport .?.?. putting that extra muscle on is to cushion all the tissue and bones and ligaments and all that.”

In 2003, the North Coast Section board of managers voted 18-11-2 to let schools and districts manage their own summer training programs. The vote was “contentious,” according to Gil Lemmon, North Coast Section athletics commissioner.

“It allowed schools to make the decision whether they would allow coaches to sponsor activities during the summer time,” he said. “If a school or school district said ‘Yeah, our coach can,’ they are not in violation of North Coast Section policy.”

“It’s true there can be an extraordinary amount of time weight training and working out,” he said. “On the same token, having a place for kids to go and associate with coaches we believe are good people .?.?. We want our kids to have good role models. I think those are all pluses.”

Rancho Cotate High School junior Danny Shelton said the Cougars’ workouts are as much about team building as anything else.

“You just have to want to work,” he said. “It’s not all fooball, the reason I’m here.”

“I think maybe it’s not so much weights, but doing everything as a team,” Shelton said on a recent weekday morning after a 90-minute strength and conditioning workout on the Snyder Lane campus in Rohnert Park.

Ukiah High School varsity head coach Jeff Burrell said when he got into coaching, summer workouts were off-limits. Today, he opens the gym five mornings a week to students wanting to lift weights and run.

“There are no footballs out there,” he said. “They are just running and lifting. It’s a violent sport and your body isn’t conditioned for that violent sport if you aren’t doing a summer program.”

At Ukiah, workouts are open to all student-athletes and they can get as many as 80 kids at a time, Burrell said.

Ukiah coaches, like other coaches across the North Bay, also hold twice-weekly position sessions, where players hone their understanding of specific positions.

And many teams attend “passing league” sessions where teams hold mini-scrimmages against other squads.

“Football is a game of repetition. You have to rep it out to master it,” said Randy Parmeter, head coach at El Molino High School. “We lay it out there and really what it is is just an opportunity for you to do it in a structured environment.”

At Cardinal Newman High School, players donned shoulder pads and helmets this week to run skills drills in addition to conditioning.

“It’s changed so much since I started,” head coach Paul Cronin said. “Now it’s wide open.”

Coaches insist that the practice time under a coach’s watchful eye is better in the long run - better for a player learning to tackle without getting hurt, understanding a new position or gaining fitness.

Rancho Cotate wide receiver and cornerback Quentin Barnes, a junior, said he expects the weights and sprints he’s been doing all summer to bear fruit from the season’s first official snap.

“Right in the beginning - when everyone else hasn’t worked as hard,” he said.

“I think it’s vital. If you want to be successful, these are things that you have to do,” Rancho’s Conroy said about offseason work. “We could show up in August and coach you and we’d win some games but if your expectations are to win this league against good teams, part of it is preparing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com and on Twitter @benefield

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