Skip Eckhardt had been telling his coaching colleagues for years that Iowa high school football needed to change at least one element of its preseason structure.
The Iowa High School Athletic Association granted the AGWSR of Ackley coach his wish this year when it rewrote its August football itinerary, implementing changes that caused the extinction of two-a-day practices and gave schools the option to scrimmage another program during the preseason.
“I’ve been in it a long time,” said Eckhardt, a former Northern Iowa assistant who has been on high school and college sidelines for 34 seasons. “I was never for sure what I had on the Friday night before (the season opener).”
This year, though, Eckhardt’s team came off the field the week before the season opened and he knew exactly what required fixing. A scrimmage against Nashua-Plainfield revealed the Cougars needed to pursue the football faster on defense and brush up on their blocking technique on offense.
“We were more mistake-free in our first game, and I think that’s because of that first scrimmage,” said Eckhardt, whose team is 3-0 and ranked No. 7 in Class A. “You can’t tell how good you are until you go against somebody else. You’re never going to go as hard as you can against your own guys.
“A lot of the big schools can get away with it because they’re more evenly matched. Most of those guys play one way, whereas we’ve got freshmen and sophomores going against upperclassmen. That’s not going to give you the true picture.”
The elimination of two-a-day practices forced coaches to redesign workout schedules and find ways to captivate the attention of their players during a maximum three-hour block each day. Coaches around the state remain split on the merits of the rule change.
“Most of us don’t like three-hour practices,” Ames coach Bruce Vertanen said. “We’d be much more efficient with two, two-hour (practices), but I’m not going to complain about the rule. I understood what they were (trying to accomplish).”
The IHSAA cited medical research and studies relative to length of practice, amount of contact and acclimatization of young athletes when it banned two-a-day practices and restructured its preseason guidelines.
“It forces you to concentrate on the fundamentals more and we need that,” Vertanen said. “It also forces you to concentrate on the conditioning aspect. I didn’t mind the adjustment.”
Like most of his colleagues, Vertanen said he likes having the option to scrimmage another school during the preseason, even though Ames didn’t make use of the rule change this year. Vertanen said a scrimmage against another program fell through and the Little Cyclones opted to keep a few new offensive changes under wraps.
“You can only hold on to a secret so long,” Vertanen said. “But on a season where we were making a few changes, why let it out of the bag one week earlier?”
Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn took a different approach. The Eagles, who lost 12 seniors from a squad that went 14-0 and won the 8-player state title, scheduled a scrimmage against neighboring Remsen St. Mary’s. They play again Friday night.
“It was something where we (told them) if you’re for it, great. If not, we understand,” Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn coach Kyle Oswald said. “It’s a 10-mile span for us between the two towns. It’s the closest (opponent).
“We’re district opponents … (but) it’s not such a heated rivalry where we were worried about people trying to hurt each other or go too hard.”