Monday was the first official day of football practice for high school football teams in Indiana.
Area coaches still love it, but changes in the school calendar have brought major changes in the dynamic of preparing a team for its upcoming season.
The balanced school calendar, which is not mandated statewide but widely employed in central Indiana, means practice begins just as high school classes are resuming. In the past, there were usually two or three weeks of practice before school bells started ringing.
Most teams conducted “two-a-days,” with a session each morning and another in the afternoon. This football rite of passage helped put players on a fast track for the season opener in terms of conditioning, sharpening their skills and learning the team’s offensive and defensive system.
With the beginning of practice closely mirroring the beginning of school, practicing twice a day is not an option. Center Grove head coach Eric Moore said losing the opportunity to focus on football during those two weeks is an obstacle, especially given that his roster includes many athletes who compete in other sports for the school.
“They don’t make the schedule for the sake of football or fall sports; I get that. But what people don’t understand is at our school and the other county schools, we have a lot of multisport athletes,” Moore said. “We’re not like Ben Davis or Warren Central or Carmel, where they just play one. What does a multisport athlete do in the summer? He plays other sports.
“Now, I don’t mind that because they are staying active and not sitting on the couch, but for the last 100 years, these next two weeks you couldn’t do those other sports, so fall sports could get all those athletes assembled again, for two weeks or 10 days or whatever, and we could get 20 practices together and really get all your work done, concentrating on that fall sport. That made it OK.”
The change in schedule comes at the same time as new guidelines implemented by the IHSAA, limiting summer practices with pads to just 12 days, with no full contact (defined as players going to the ground). Moore explained that with athletes competing in other sports, it is difficult to get his entire group together in the summer even for those days.
All of this means less time in terms of days and actual practices to get ready for the team’s Aug. 15 preseason scrimmage, and its Aug. 22 season-opener against defending Class 6A state champion Warren Central.
“That’s a big dilemma for us. We’ve got a young team this year so it is really going to hurt us,” Moore said. “Other teams it might not hurt as much, but it hurts us this year so I’m complaining.
“On top of that, we’re opening the door with one of the best teams in the country, not just the state, in Warren Central, so we’re in a tough situation.”
Whiteland coach Darrin Fisher, who is also the president of the Indiana Football Coaches Association, said he agrees with Moore that starting fall practice just as school begins poses a challenge to teams as they prepare for the season.
Teams and coaches will have to adapt their planning accordingly, Fisher said.
“We treated our summer team camp like a college team would do spring practice,” Fisher said. “We spent time there installing concepts, not just what we do but why we do it. So when we (started Monday) we (were) really reviewing it and not learning it new.
“That takes some of the pressure off of the players, to not be starting from scratch.”
Fisher said the time crunch will affect smaller schools the most.
“If a smaller school had guys playing both ways, and you are trying to install and offense and a defense, it (the calendar) definitely would matter,” he said. “We are a two-platoon football team and that helps us, because we are practicing on both sides of the ball anyway.
“It helps make up for whatever practice time we lose at the beginning of the season.”
Fisher added that the calendar will also dictate that teams work on skills and the playbook, rather than conditioning.
“Because we only have 15 days to get ready for our first game, you can’t afford to spend that time trying to get in shape,” he said. “First of all it’s physiologically impossible to get in shape during that time, and secondly, there is too much football to learn so we have to focus on that part of it.”
As a result, conditioning work in July becomes that much more important for teams, Fisher stressed.
Veteran Indian Creek coach Mike Gillin also said that the bulk of conditioning work comes in the summer, and that the first few weeks of practice will be even more crucial for teams due to the absence of two-a-days.
“I’ve always said it’s not just about how many times you practice, but how well you practice,” Gillin said. “So it’s important that everybody really be doing things the right way, both with how they practice and how they are away from the field, how well they hydrate and eat and all of that. We’ll have to speed things up a little bit. We’ll review what we worked on in summer camp.
“I won’t let it take away from them working on fundamentals, and most every coach I’ve talked with feels the same way.”
Franklin coach Adam Reese said while the new calendar and rules make the opening of practice “definitely different,” he sees positives in terms of continuity for player schedules.
“The fact that they are already in school from the very beginning of practice I think helps get them prepared and in the routine of how it’s going to be all season long,” Reese said. “They’ll be used to, from the first week, going to school in the morning and going to football practice afterward. I think that helps them focus.”
There is, however, a psychological aspect of two-a-day practices that will be missed, Fisher said.
“There’s a mental toughness factor it builds,” he said. “Teams come together in part, simply because of adversity. The preseason used to allow you to create some adversity in the group, because they are tired, because they are spending so much time around each other and have to learn to live together. You go through those things and you have to learn how to adjust and do well anyway. So that is something you can’t do like you could 20 years ago, but of course we have to make sure we are always doing the things we need to do to protect kids.”
Apart from all the expert analysis of practice methods and schedules, the coaches also admitted to just being happy that the new season has arrived.
“I love the first week of practice,” Gillin said. “I always look forward to it. We’ve got more seniors than I’ve had, so I’m very excited to start preparing them.”
“I spend all year long, from when we get knocked out until now, getting fired up for the beginning of the season. It’s just as exciting to me every year.”