Meadville practice

The Meadville football team breaks from a huddle at the start of a heat acclimatization practice at Bender Field last week. On Monday, Meadville and the rest of the area teams start preseason camp, getting the 2019 football campaign officially underway. 

High school football teams will be twisting the intensity knob up another notch as preseason football camp officially gets started on Monday. 

Teams have just ended a week of heat acclimatization practices, in which players are allowed to wear helmets and shoulder pads but are not allowed to engage in contact drills.

Starting Monday, it’s full pads, full contact.

“That Monday, that’s the day that you really start to see what the kids can do when the pads are on, going full speed,” said Cambridge Springs head coach Justin Grubbs. “You have an idea during heat week. But it’s a different story once there is someone else coming at you.”

The heat acclimatization practices have been around since 2013, established by the PIAA as a way to allow athletes to get used to the late-summer heat before going full bore. 

While the change has benefits from a player safety standpoint, the heat week, as well as the growing role of offseason workouts, have changed the rhythm of preseason football. 

It used to be that the start of preseason camp was a major dividing line between summer and football season. The season starts ... now! It was like a holiday.

“I know when I played high school football in the 80’s, the two-week camp was really a big deal,” said Meadville head coach Ray Collins. “It was really a big deal. You’d see certain teammates you hadn’t seen since school let out. It was exciting.”

Times have changed, however. 

For one thing, the importance of offseason weight training in the game of football has become vital to the success of a program. 

Collins, for example, pinpoints a poorly-attended weight training program last year as a key factor in his team’s 0-9 season in 2018.

He and his coaching staff made their current players well aware of the issue. And, according to Collins, those players responded nicely. 

“The guys took the offseason weight training very seriously,” he said. “They put in a ton of hard work. A lot of them really transformed their bodies. I’ve seen kids that have put on 15 pounds of muscle from being with us all offseason. Some of our bigger kids have slimmed down and put the weight in the right places. We’re in good shape.” 

So, even before the next phase of the preseason, the coaches already have an idea of where the strength of their team lies, both literally and in a more figurative sense. And the players are already familiar with many of their teammates.

Then comes the heat practices. And they’re kind of strange in that the PIAA mandates that a player undergoes heat acclimatization. However, a team can’t make it mandatory that a player shows up for them. 

The heat practices that most teams have just held — from Aug. 5 through 9 — are dates that the PIAA recommends. Technically, football season still hasn’t started. 

If a player misses a team’s heat practices, they still have to follow the heat acclimatization protocols — helmet and shoulder pads, no contact — for three days before they can join the rest of their team for full-contact practices once mandatory camp actually starts. 

Therefore, coaches do their best to get a full turnout for those heat week practices. And there, they get an even better understanding of what their team is made of. 

“It was probably the best week of heat acclimatization that I’ve had,” said Maplewood head coach Bryan Borkovich. “The kids are focused. They’re ready. They’ll all in, ready to go. I think a lot of it is the confidence in that they know what they have this year.” 

Most coaches treat the heat practices as a time to work on X’s and O’s. 

“It’s one of those things where we get to install a lot of stuff,” said Grubbs. “It’s a little more pressure now that we have just the one scrimmage. But it does give us time to just install things, just getting plays in and getting people where they need to go.” 

Finally, on Monday, it’s the official start of football season. 

However, instead of the ‘Bang, they’re off!’ start of past years, it is now a slow build to this point for most teams. 

“It’s a very gradual thing, a very steady thing,” said Collins. “When Monday rolls around it’s not going to be that much different from what we’ve been doing every day for 38 weeks now. They’ve been coming in every week expecting to do the work and doing the work. Camp is a week of higher intensity. That’s the one thing that separates it.” 

One team in the area still treats it like a holiday, though. 

For the third year in a row, Cochranton will hold its first official camp at midnight on Monday, inviting fans to come and watch the spectacle. 

“For us coaches, it’s still like Christmas Eve,” said Cardinals head coach Joel Murray. “It’s our third year doing it. And the first year that we announced that we’d be doing it the players were like, ‘What? Why?’

“But it gradually made sense to them. When they saw the community come out, and band playing, and firetrucks flashing their lights and running their sirens when the clock struck 12, they got it. And they’ve embraced it ever since.”

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