SPRINGFIELD – For any high school football player, the month of August can bring both joy and dread.
The joy comes from the beginning of football practice, while the dread from the exhaustion the comes from it.
But coach Paul Dunn’s Springfield High School football team finds little dread in its August practices. The Tigers are perennial contenders for the Southern Minnesota Conference title and will likely make a run deep into October’s sectional play again this season.
Last Monday began the Tigers’ odyssey to state, which they have not reached since 2008, with that first practice that is both celebrated and dreaded. While the heat was not an overwhelming factor with the temperature a meager 75 degrees, senior Cooper Scheffler said there was another particular struggle for the first few practices.
“Coming into [the] season everyone is always out of shape,” Scheffler said. “This is mostly for us to get back in shape and get what we have to do done. If you don’t get your lifts in, that’s always a tough first day because you’ve got to do extra running.”
During the off season, the players are supposed to partake in at least 24 school weightlifting sessions with maxouts every month in preparation for the season. Those who fail to meet that goal must do a “commitment run,” which requires them to run one mile before practice begins.
“I think it helps a lot,” said senior fullback and defensive end Nick Runck. “It gets us more in shape and bigger and better for the season to come.”
Practice on Monday began with a group jog around the practice field next to the left-field fence of Riverside Park.
The grass was green, having yet to brown from the heat and the repetitive cleats digging in its soil. The lines of the field have been patted down in 5-yard increments, but were not chalked like a regular football field.
Players wore plain gold helmets – the “Tigers” decals have yet to be applied – with maroon face masks, but were not allowed to wear pads until Thursday’s practice.
Limiting contact in practices is seen as a benefit for a team like Springfield, which lists 37 players on its roster while playing in Class A, the second-least-populated tier in Minnesota high school football.
But the enthusiasm of hitting has not completely waned.
“First day of pads, we get hitting stations; it’s like Christmas day,” said senior lineman Tim Krueger.
Soon after the jog, Dunn addressed his players before their group stretch, touching on the importance of staying hydrated. Replenishing electrolytes, eating foods rich in potassium – Dunn wanted to make sure his players were doing the right things so their bodies would be able to handle the grind of football practice.
Before letting his players stretch, Dunn gave his players a nugget of motivation.
“Only thing in common we have with [New Ulm] Cathedral, MVL, Sleepy Eye, St. Mary’s is the number of days between now and game day,” Dunn said. “How we use those days is what’s important.”
Cathedral struck a chord with many of the players from last year’s team as it did with the coaches. In three of the past four seasons, Springfield has been knocked out by Cathedral in the Section 2A playoffs, including last season’s 33-14 loss in the semifinals.
“I don’t think it gets to us, I actually think it motivates us to push harder every single year,” said senior fullback Bobby Klabunde of the playoff losses to Cathedral. “It gives us something to work for.”
A four-station gauntlet of agility drills awaited the players now, with each station being split up by grade. Dunn said Tuesday’s stations would be split up into “pride groups,” which were divided and arranged based off the players’ times in the 40-yard dash.
After all four groups had been through all four stations, the players were split up for position work. Since defense was being delegated strictly to Tuesday, Monday was a day for work on offense.
Offensive position work was a time for coaches to meticulously break down technique and formations.
The offensive line walked through hand motions and blocking techniques – the principle of which teaches them apply the helmet to the bicep of the defender as opposed to the chest, as was taught in the past before head injuries became more prevalent.
Line coach Jeff Briard administered a breakdown of techniques while even running one exercise as the “don’t step on my hat” drill. A group of up to five linemen would execute a blocking scheme before running either left or right with Briard’s direction without stepping on his hat. One group stepped on his hat at one point and he yelled “I told you guys not to step on my hat,” but did so without a chastising tone as the other linemen could be heard chuckling.
Wide receivers practiced running routes, vying to catch passes in the process. There were catches, drops and even some diving drops that were met with a “nice effort” comment of encouragement from either the coaches or teammates. Halfway through the breakdown, tight ends migrated from the lineman group to join the receivers in route-running drills.
Running backs and fullbacks practiced hitting holes between plastic purple and orange cones that were distinguished as offensive linemen or taking a pitch from the quarterbacks that weren’t lobbing passes to the receivers in an option simulation. The backs were quick on their feet, rarely dropping hand offs while maintaining a low center of gravity throughout the drills.
As practice progressed, the coaches’ explanations continued as players listened more than they drilled. The players then conglomerated as a team, concluding practice with an offensive run-through in a first-team and second-team offense with players rotating in both.
“I’d say staying focused during the non-contact days,” Krueger said of the team’s biggest struggle during the opening week practice. “The non-contact days get a little long since you can’t hit anybody.
“The first day isn’t bad, it’s more of the second day when you’re kind of doing the same things over again.”
But the explanations and walkthroughs serve a purpose, reiterating the schemes and plays to upperclassmen and showing the less-experienced underclassmen the way of Springfield football.
Dunn broke down the different formations clearly, explaining the importance of each one with the first-team offense – simulating plays from the applicable formation.
This period was focused on execution, drilling the schematics into the players’ heads so they would have them down-pat once they are in pads.
“We have our same playset,” Scheffler said. “Dunn has his own offense he’s ran for many years that we stick with. From year to year, younger kids will learn it and it will just be engraved into their brain.
“So we come into the year knowing what we’re going to do, we’ve just got to be able to perform it the way we have to.”
With each repetition comes more coaching piece by piece. At this point, players would ask coaches for any clarification that was needed to better understand a given play.
If someone screwed something up, the coaches rehashed the correct to execute the play when players weren’t quick to ask themselves. At one point, junior quarterback Carter Erickson even asked Dunn for clarification from behind center just before receiving the snap with the first-team offense.
SPRINT TO THE FINISH
Practice concluded as it normally does with a conditioning session, which requires players to run a particular distance – sometimes within a certain amount of time – to sculpt a toughened mentality while basically getting them into shape.
This day’s conditioning drill was the snake, where players run in a line from sideline to sideline – sprinting in between the hashmarks signified by players’ helmets and jogging on the turn to the next line to allow them catch their breaths. After the players ran the length of the field in the snake formation, they were to do the exact same on the way back after a short breather.
The line was led almost the entire time by senior Jordan Vogel with Runck immediately behind him. Upperclassmen mostly led the group while the underclassmen trailed close by.
“We’re on everyone’s back and everyone can count on us,” Runck said. “We know that we have each other … We’re just all basically one big, huge family.”
Toward the end, the players who had already finished began cheering on those who were still running. Some of them went back and ran with those who were still running, others started a cadence of encouragement – synchronized claps and all – to help the final runners finish up the last few lines of the snake.
Dunn addressed his team after everyone was done, going over housekeeping items and reminding them of the schedule for the rest of the week. The players were tired, but no one hung their heads with a defensive practice around the corner and practice in pads later in the week.
Springfield’s first practice may not have been anything out of the ordinary compared to the New Ulm or Sleepy Eye schools. But just like those schools, the Tigers were now one step closer to their season-opening game.
Springfield begins its season on Aug. 30 at Red Rock Central. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.