It was an ideal summer evening — mild temperatures, coupled with manageable humidity — perfect for lounging around a bonfire or watching the sun set from the beach.
As fewer than a dozen parents sat spread out on Arlington High School’s gray, metal bleachers, stands that will be jammed with 100 times that many spectators Sept. 5, Marc Barbieri and teammates chugged away on the turf, as if their first game was hours — not weeks — away.
“We want to be the best team we can be,” said Barbieri, who will begin his senior year at the Freedom Plains school next month. “We know committing ourselves in June, July and August, before the preseason starts, is going to make us a better team when September rolls around and the season starts.”
Though scholastic football teams in Dutchess and Ulster counties are allowed to begin their official preseason team workouts Monday, hundreds of local players have already spent their summer working together in unofficial activities supervised by coaches, so they can hit the ground running during that first practice.
Such offseason work comes with a price, a commitment of free time and often hundreds of dollars to take part in week-long camps with other teams. But the extra effort has paid dividends for schools in the mid-Hudson Valley in recent seasons, with teams like Poughkeepsie and Our Lady of Lourdes earning the first sectional championships in their programs’ histories. A year ago, Marlboro reached the state semifinals, while both John Jay and Roy C. Ketcham earned league titles.
“With football, you can’t just expect to show up on Aug. 18 and do good,” said Mike Lesoine, who will play on the Franklin D. Roosevelt defensive line as a senior this upcoming season. “You’ve got to dedicate a lot of time, and you have to work out in the summer. You can’t just show up there on the 18th and have not done anything all summer. You’re just not going to perform.”
In recent years, more and more local squads have taken part in organized team activities, or OTAs, during the summer, leading up to the first official day of practices in mid-August. These OTAs can include lifting weights in the gym, running to work on conditioning or walking through plays the teams will use during the season.
Officials with the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, which governs interscholastic sports throughout the state, said such workouts must be voluntary; coaches cannot penalize players for missing sessions. There can also be no physical contact — tackling and the like — nor can players wear football equipment like pads and helmets during OTAs before Aug. 18.
As opposed to “captains practices” of yore, in which a team’s most senior players would put their teammates through their paces during the offseason without adult supervision, coaches are now allowed to run summer OTAs, working with their young charges in a protective environment.
“Now coaches are allowed, which is such a great thing for the safety of the practices,” said Millbrook head coach Sean Keenan, who took part in those student-led workouts more than 30 years ago at Lourdes. Coaches, who are certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, first aid and other skills, routinely supervise such offseason workouts. “Now coaches can teach, and they’re safer.”
Tournaments in which teams play 7-on-7 touch football, focusing solely on passing on offense, also keep players busy in summer, as do team camps at which squads voluntarily attend as a collective unit; Arlington hosted one such weeklong clinic in late July.
When teams take part in OTAs on school property, their school district’s insurance policy covers the players, should injuries occur. Student-athletes, however, pay for camps and clinics — their district does not foot the bill — with a portion of that money going toward insurance.
“It’s costly out of pocket,” said Roosevelt head coach Brian Bellino, explaining “the average price is $100 for five days, three hours a day” at most camps. “You try to work with them (players). If I have a kid who can’t go (because of finances), I’ll try to find a way. You want your guys working there together.
“You understand why sometimes people can’t swing it. It’s costly.”
Most teams take part in several offseason camps. Bellino’s Presidents, for example, attended passing scrimmages at West Point and Arlington, as well as a free NFL High School Player Development clinic in Newburgh. Beacon’s players attended similar events in West Point and Carmel, among others.
Though her son Noah’s Spackenkill squad didn’t attend a team camp this summer, Beth Imperato and her husband paid his way to camps in Rhode Island and Illinois. She said the price is worth helping her son become a better player, though not every family can afford it.
“You take into consideration he’s someone who loves this game. His passion is overwhelming,” Imperato said. “As a parent, I want him to develop the skills for the game. For him to learn more and be around kids who feel like him, we couldn’t say, ‘No.’ This is his goal: He’d love to play in college.
“If we can help him pursue this, and it makes him a better player and a better person, let’s do it. And he appreciates it. We get a ‘thank you’ from him every day.”
Football teams play fewer regular-season games than any other scholastic sport — local squads will play either seven or eight games during the 2014 regular season — so each contest holds greater importance toward reaching the playoffs.
“That is why, I think, over the years you’ve really seen so much of this preparation take place prior to the preseason,” Arlington head coach Dominick DeMatteo said.
As such, coaches and players said they’ll benefit from as much preparation as possible, including during the summer months leading up to Monday.
“June is important. It’s pretty beneficial to us,” Beacon head coach Brian Mahon said, “just to get the football mentality again and freshening their minds with our plays. There’s not as much teaching that has to be done once camp starts.”
Instead of teaching skills on Monday, just days before the opening kickoff, coaches use the preceding months to impart the fundamentals. With those basics behind them, teams will focus on their first opponent when Monday rolls around.
“We’re getting so much teaching in,” Keenan said, “so that once Aug. 18 comes up, we’re going to be refining and game-planning. When Aug. 18 comes, we’re preparing for Dover, our first game (on Sept. 6).”
Given the benefits of summer OTAs — be it the camaraderie, the team-building or the jump-start on the upcoming season — players said they don’t mind giving up a few hours a week if the sacrifice gives their team a competitive edge.
“Some kids make the decision to go out, spend their time over the summer hanging out with friends, going to parties and stuff,” said Alex Marinelli, who will be Roosevelt’s senior quarterback. “But if you love football enough — especially for us seniors, or even the juniors, sophomores and freshmen — high school football is a big deal. If you want to be successful and you want to make your family and your friends proud and your school proud, you’ll put in the time and the effort in the summer when you need to. That will turn into success in the season.”
Coaches said the vast majority of their players attend the voluntary summer practices — “We’ve had between 90 and 100 percent of our kids participating almost every night,” Keenan said — and they said such dedication is a testament to the young men’s desire to be their best.
“I think it always boils down to one thing: They’re having fun,” DeMatteo said. “I don’t think you do anything, especially as an adolescent, unless you’re having fun; and we preach that to the kids. Football should be fun. Practice should be fun. Games should be an absolute blast. This is why kids remember it the rest of their lives into adulthood.
“All this preparation, it’s not mandatory. Is it strongly encouraged? Absolutely, but it’s not mandatory. One thing I always tell my kids is: I want you here, but if you can’t make it here, especially for family, especially for vacation, I just want to know about it. The days of disappearing for six weeks and then showing up and thinking that two weeks of preparation is going to get you ready to stand on this field in front of 4,000 people on Homecoming Night, it’s just not going to work that way.”
Sean T. McMann: email@example.com; 845-437-4826; Twitter: @journalsean
Share your photos, thoughts
Use the Twitter hashtag #PJCamp to share your photos and thoughts on the first day of high school sports preseason. The Journal Sports reporters will be around the mid-Hudson Valley throughout Monday using #PJCamp to tweet their own observations. Follow them at @PJSports, @PJStrum, @PJDanPietrafesa and @BenischekPJ.
Here are some tips for staying safe and injury-free during the opening weeks of the fall sports season:
• Enter camp in shape
“They really need to mimic the conditions of practice a month ahead of time to get their body used to the stresses of practice,” said Jeff Carter, the Coordinator of Sports Medicine at Marist College.
• Coaches, players should be aware of the heat index
“It’s so hot in August. … We’re making sure we have water out on our fields,” said Pine Plains Athletic Director Jeremy Weber.
• Exercise all muscles to avoid overuse injuries
“The old way of athletes playing multiple sports was a great way of keeping the body healthy. In terms of injury rates, the single-sport athletes are probably at greater risk for overuse injuries,” said Carter.
• Rest effectively
“Over the summer, kids sleep in late. … When you sleep, the body gets a chance to repair and one of the things we’re missing on is kids getting proper rest,” Arlington Athletic Director Dave Goddard.
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