One of the most wonderful sounds of summer filled the air Monday as football equipment collided on practice fields across the area.
Although they were able to don helmets and shoulder pads for three days last week, the day marked the first time TSSAA teams could put on the entire set of pads, allowing full contact drills.
“It was our first chance to hit and see who has the fight in them it takes to play this game,” declared Cleveland High head coach Ron Crawford. “We know what our skill players can do, but we need to see what our line is going to do.
“We’re going to have some guys pretty sore tomorrow, but the fact of the matter is we’ve got to be tougher and more physical up front,” commented Crawford, who is starting his second season at the Blue Raider helm.
Despite having missed the playoffs the last two years, Cleveland had the largest turnout of the four local high schools with 103 players, including 33 freshmen, suited up.
“Even with so many players, our coaches did a great job of being able to give individual instruction to everyone,” Crawford added. “We have to take that individual instruction and translate it into a group mentality. We are definitely a work in progress at this point.”
While Crawford stated he was pleased with the first-day effort but that his team has a long way to go, on the other side of town, Bradley Central head coach Damon Floyd didn’t mince his words to express his disappointment with what he saw from his Bears.
“I’m not very happy with this practice,” proclaimed Floyd, who has led the Bears to three straight playoff appearances. “Being the first day to hit, you’d think they’d come out excited and pumped up. Instead, it took them a while to get going, and even then they weren’t aggressive.”
“We have got to get more physical fast,” Floyd said as he begins his eighth season directing the Black-and-Gold with 86 players out for practice. “We are going to find out who wants to play and who doesn’t. If we don’t look any better than this, we won’t win many games.”
While the other local teams are sticking with the lone evening practice this week, for the second year Walker Valley coach Glen Ryan is once again “going old school,” with an intense, three-day mini-camp.
“We go from 9 to 11:30 in the morning working on defense, then do special teams from 1 to 2:30 in the afternoon and come back out around 8 in the evening and work until we’re done on offense,” he related after getting off the field after 11 last night. “We started a little rough, but we got better as the day went along.”
Several of the 90 Mustangs are even spending the night at the team’s fieldhouse.
“We have sleeping bags, air mattresses and even some hammocks everywhere,” Ryan remarked. “Some guys go home at night and come back, but a lot of them are staying right here. Me and one of my assistant coaches overnight here with them.
“The camp helps us find out what we’re made of and how we respond when we’re tired,” the veteran coach commented. “It also helps us to bond together. We have got to be tougher mentally and physically. Last year we faded some against the good teams. We can’t afford to do that and get to where we want to be.”
Making the playoffs for the first time since 2008, Walker Valley went 5-5 during the regular season last year before falling to Lenoir City in the opening round of the TSSAA postseason.
The camp will run through Wednesday, when teacher in-service training will keep the coaches busy during the day.
Over to the east, Polk County coach Derrick Davis got his 14th season as the “Top Cat” underway with 63 players for an evening practice.
“We had nice weather, a good day of practice and nobody got hurt. That’s the most important thing,” Davis declared.
“We didn’t go real hard on the first day. You’ve got to be patient. This (the season) is a marathon, not a sprint,” added the engineer who has directed the “Big Red Train” to nine straight postseason berths. “We stayed very basic. We were able to install most of our offense while we were in shorts, so now we’ll work more on defense.”
All four local teams will get their first test against an opponent this weekend as Polk County and Cleveland travel for scrimmages Friday evening, while Bradley will host its annual five-way scrimmage Saturday evening and Walker Valley will entertain a three-way practice Saturday morning.
While the three Bradley County squads will give their fans a chance to see their teams in action for the first time, Polk County fans will have to wait a week.
“The scrimmage at East Hamilton Friday will be a closed practice session, per (East Hamilton) school policy,” explained Davis. “I’ve told our fans there’s no need to make the trip down because they won’t be allowed to come in.”
Cleveland will make a trip to face state powerhouse Alcoa on Friday.
Walker Valley will welcome Hixson and Karns to “The Corral” at 9 Saturday morning, while Baylor, Red Bank, South Pittsburg and McMinn Central will join Bradley at Bear Stadium Saturday evening at 6 for practice-game action.
The regular season will get underway Aug. 22 as Cleveland plays host to McCallie for a Thursday night game, while Bradley will travel to Polk County and Walker Valley to East Ridge the following night.