The sign in front of Ithaca High School said it was August 13 and the temperature read 85 degrees, but Monday felt like Christmas morning for Bill Bryant.
“I’m excited as heck — I never dreamt I’d have the opportunity to do this again,” said Bryant, the retired athletics director at the high school who last coached football at Spencer-Van Etten, in 1988. “I can’t sleep, I’m so excited. Not everybody gets an opportunity like this.
“I think the kids have received me and the staff very well, and engaged in what we could do in the summer months,” he said. “And really, for the first day of practice, I’m very pleased.”
Summer vacation came to an end for hundreds of athletes across Tompkins County as fall practices commenced. For the county’s five football teams — including Trumansburg, which will feature several players who attend Newfield (see story, Page 1A) — Monday’s workouts were the first in the run-up to the opening night of the season on Aug. 31.
Bryant took the reins from Ed Redmond, who in the spring accepted a coaching position in Virginia after four years at his alma mater. Bryant and his staff welcomed 70 varsity and junior varsity players to his first practice, and he was encouraged by the numbers and attitudes.
“It’s a great group of kids, and they’ve responded really well,” Bryant said. “They’ve picked up the offense really quickly, and the big thing for us right now is to (practice) the heck out of it.
“You could see that some of the kids, conditioning-wise, with the heat, they’re a little bit out of shape, but that’s what practice is for,” he said.
Bryant is emphasizing offense and conditioning for the first few practices and will switch to defense as the week unfolds. The Owego Free Academy and Ithaca College graduate, who helped Jim Butterfield’s Bombers to Stagg Bowl appearances in 1974 and ’75, is optimistic despite inheriting a team that went 1-8 last year.
“My gut feeling, from what I’ve seen this summer in the short time I’ve been around the guys, is that we’re going to put some talented athletes on the field,” he said. “I’m going to call them home-run hitters; we’re going to put kids on the field who can strike at any time. If we can get the ball into their hands and we stay healthy, I think people will be surprised.”
Ithaca opens its season at 7 p.m. Aug. 31 at home against Vestal — the only team the Little Red defeated last year. That win, 33-30, came on the game’s final play, a broken play on which then-sophomore lineman Matt Fricke picked up a fumble and ran into the end zone as Vestal players celebrated an apparent victory.
“I told the kids in the meeting before practice: Start thinking Vestal right now,” Bryant said. “It’s a few weeks away, but I know that they’re thinking about it because you guys stole one from them last year.”
* At Lansing, a group of 25 players opened practice Monday morning under the eye of third-year head coach John Winslow, who has coached a number of his players since their early years.
“It’s going to be a young team, but I’ve actually coached most of them since they were in flag football,” said Winslow. “The sophomore, junior and senior class, I coached them all, so I kind of know the group we have.”
The Bobcats, 4-4 a year ago, lost 12 seniors, something Winslow hopes to overcome with familiarity and strong conditioning. Lansing’s players have been lifting four times per week for the majority of the summer and will be emphasizing fitness in the coming days.
“When we look at the offense and defense, they will already have played it so it’s a little bit easier for them,” he said. “They’ll be able to pick it up pretty quick.”
* At Dryden, second-year coach Dan Fink admits to not having been able to sleep much ahead of Monday’s opening practice.
“Didn’t get to sleep until about 2 o’clock last night; woke up at five for a six-thirty practice, so I’m running on some coffee and some adrenaline right now,” Fink said. “It’s nice.”
With a chance to put a 3-6 season behind with a “fresh year, fresh start,” not many can blame him. The Purple Lions have 16 returnees, as well as a couple new additions.
“There’s always room for a surprise kid,” said Fink. “We have a couple of new ones this year, seniors that didn’t play last year, so hopefully they can contribute something. We have a good core of seniors and some younger players at the skilled positions, so there’s still going to have to be a learning curve but overall we expected to be competitive.”
Fink says practices this week will be tailored toward “getting some good team chemistry going” and learning some new offensive schemes.
“Hopefully, we get to be quick learners and learn on the fly,” Fink said.
* At Groton, longtime coach Jeff Lewis faces perhaps his toughest test in recent memory with only eight returning varsity players. Lewis, whose team finished last season 6-3, has been coaching at Groton since 1994 and enters his 11th season at the helm of the varsity.
“A lot of fresh faces. Football is my favorite thing, so it’s always nice to get back and get back started again,” Lewis said. “The boys all look forward to that.”
Despite his team’s lack of experience, Lewis says expectations will not change, and believes competition for playing time created by departing players will be a key to success.
“We have some skilled kids back that are going to do a great job for us, I know they will, and the youngers kids are eager in wanting to get some positions,” Lewis said. “That’s always good when you have that battle on the field.”
“We’re always looking to get to the playoffs and winning a sectional championship to get to that state tournament,” Lewis said. “That’s the name of the game. It’ll just be a little bit more of a mission this year.”
Senior wide receiver/linebacker Damian Young says the team’s younger players have time to learn the ropes.
“It’s exciting to be back out here,” Young said.
“We have a lot of young guys, and once we get the pads on everything changes a little bit.”