Posted: 3:12 pm Monday, August 9th, 2010

Notes from Day 1: High school football season is here again 

By Matt Porter

For me, the official start of the 2010 football season began at 5:55 a.m., with the first of two coffees. Both were consumed on the way to Palm Beach Gardens, the first stop on a five-school kickoff tour. I’ll be posting updates throughout the day in this space, reporting scattered observations from Gardens, Jupiter, Jupiter Christian, Benjamin and Dwyer. Hope you enjoy.


* * *

Stop 1: Palm Beach Gardens

It’s 6:25 a.m., five minutes before call time. Outside one of the back entrances to the school’s weight room, most of the Gators’ junior varsity squad is sitting on the concrete.

Most of them.

Three near-latecomers can’t find their way through the chain-link fence that skirts the area. As their teammates laugh, one cuts left trying to find the entrance, and the other two cut right. All three eventually find the gate, taking ribs from their teammates.

At 6:30 sharp, a JV assistant coach turns the key, and the players file in. One player’s parent hangs around, waiting to give a word to the coach. “Don’t be afraid to push him,” he says, sounding like a Dad who knows he’s putting his son in someone else’s hands for the next few months.

* * *

It’s 6:35 a.m., and the varsity has filed into the weight room. Some shuffle along, and the more vocal kids shout as they find spots in which to kneel down for a pre-lift pep talk.

Gators coach Chris Davis hasn’t arrived to give the speech. He’s leaning against the door to his office, consoling a crying player. The player’s family is moving away, and he won’t be a part of the season.

“He was crushed,” says Davis. “It’s hard to lose him.”

Davis didn’t expect this, but he knew he’d be in for a surprise or two. On Friday, he painted the practice field with two player volunteers, senior Mark Brown and his brother Malik, a sophomore. “I don’t care how organized or prepared you are, it’s crazy the first day,” he said.

Ten minutes in, Monday proves itself to be just that. He’ll process paperwork, get helmets and jerseys to players that don’t have them yet, run a 45-minute weight session and 2 1/2-hour practice on the field. The sun won’t be up for another hour, and the whole operation is already buzzing.

Inside the cozy, but sparkling weight room, the Gators run through shuffles, leg kicks and other warm-up drills. “Man, I was born to do this,” shouts one player confidently. Davis chirps his whistle to move them back and forth over the strip of turf running down the center of the room.

“Y’all tired? Y’all tired? I’m ready for this,” yells Malik Brown, a sophomore who carries himself like a senior captain.

They take a knee around the Gators logo in the middle. “We posted the depth charts in the locker room. If you’re not on the depth chart, it’s because of one of two things,” says Davis. “I didn’t see you this summer, or I don’t know about you.” One player says “I’m about to be noticed” to no one in particular.

He’s focused, and so are his teammates. They gather into groups of four and move into the 10 all-in-one weightlifting stations. As soon as the whistle blows, the room resembles a factory. Ten at a time, they bench-press plates as shouts of encouragement and trash-talking bounce off the walls.

“Get it! C’mon boy, let’s get this weight!”

Through the crowd, it doesn’t take long to notice junior left tackle Avery Young. Standing 6-foot-6 and weighing 270 pounds, he towers around the bench, lending a hand to teammates until his turn comes. During power clean drills, he puts three 45-pound plates on either side of the bar and hoists them with relative ease. When they tire, some players throw the bar to the ground; Young replaces it. Most of the Gators perform lying abdominal twists with a 10-pound plate; Young and 6-foot, 280-pound lineman Mark Brown pass 25-pound plates across their chests. The shorter, stockier Brown talks smack to Young — “Avery, where you at?” — as they perform the drill, but Young gives it right back as he performs flawless reps. It looks like he could use two plates.

It’s finally time to get on the field. In the shadow of their recently completed stadium — this fall marks the first Gardens home game in four years — the Gators stretch for a moment. On cue, sprinklers on one side of field make their presence known. “Nothing but a little water, coach,” laughs one player, as Davis puts in a hurried phone call to have the sprinklers turned off.

“Man, I love the first day,” Davis says with a shake of his head. “In all honesty, the first three days, everybody just wants to get them over with. There’s not a whole lot you can do.”

Try telling that to senior wide receiver Tyrico McGriff. After playing for two seasons at Inlet Grove, he transferred back to Gardens, where he played as a freshman. At 6-1 and a lanky 180 pounds, McGriff uses his speed (4.5 40-yard dash) to star in track and field — and impress his coach.

“In the summer I see him running all over town,” said Davis. “It’s the darndest thing. I go to the coffee shop in the morning, I see him running by me. That’s not even something we’ve talked about. He’s just one of those kids who won’t let anyone outwork him.”

“I’m trying to build up my wind,” says McGriff. “I want to play offense, defense, kickoffs. You got to have that wind. I’m motivated. I’m a senior, you know? I’m trying to get the ring. I want that ring.”

* * *

Stop 2: Jupiter

It’s 9:50 a.m. and the day is heating up. The Warriors have been on the field since 9.

They’re broken up into three groups — small, medium and large players — and running the length of the field.

 

One gruesome injury.

One gruesome injury.

In the group made up of linemen and linebackers is senior Zach Finnel. Weighing a bulky 260 pounds, Finnel was a starter on the Warriors’ offensive line his sophomore season. But during a practice drill last August, Finnel planted his hand on the ground and tore his right triceps at the elbow. He missed his junior season and his weight dropped to 210. Now a lean 225, the senior has a fresh outlook, and new role on the team.

 

“It was one of the rarest, strangest injuries we’ve ever had,” said Jupiter coach Charlie Persson. “He’s worked his fanny off to get healthy and back in shape. He lost a lot of weight because he couldn’t work out. He kind of rebuilt his body, and increased his speed, and now he looks like he’s going to be our starting inside linebacker.”

“It was a year ago. I fell down pass blocking and caught myself, and completely severed the tricep,” he said. “It wasn’t connected to the elbow at all. It was a six-month rehab. I’m back to benching 265 again.” He shows off the scar. “They took off the tendon completely and drilled a hole in the bone, and they fed the muscle through the bone and sutured it to the other side. It was something.”

The middle sprint group is led by Tyler Cameron. He bursts past the rest of the pack, beating the other quarterbacks and medium-size players every time up the field.

“He was our leading rusher, leading passer, he’ll probably be that again this year,” said Persson. “He’s got all the tools and all the talent to be a great quarterback.”

Cameron fits the classic QB mold. Standing 6-3 and a ripped 215, he carries himself with an easy confidence. Teammates mess his hair as they walk by, and the team’s athletic trainer teases “what’s up, Golden Boy?” when she passes him.

This is a big season for his future — college coaches took notice of him during a summer camp at the University of Florida — and for his team. They’re coming off a 2-8 season, during which Persson changed his Wing-T offense to a spread formation. Cameron has a talented corps of receivers, but they still have much work to do to get the offense down. “We’re still not where we need to be,” said Cameron. “We’ll see.”

 

Way hotter than it looks.

Way hotter than it looks.

Cameron’s receivers are in the third group. Seniors Joey Zaino and Dan O’Neill, and juniors James Davis and Glen Collier encourage their teammates to finish out final few 110-yard sprints. A few players are dry-heaving off to the side.

 

“We got a couple of young guys, they haven’t done this before,” said O’Neill, who had 49 receptions last season. “They don’t know how to pace themselves. They might run themselves out.”

That’s exactly what happened to Brad Edison.

Edison, a sophomore trying to earn a varsity spot as a wide receiver/defensive back, came in as a relative unknown. During the sprints, he flew up and down the field, causing one assistant coach to lean over and ask O’Neill, “who’s the kid in the red shorts?”

But after the next set of drills, Edison stands hunched over at midfield. Too winded, he stumbled during a drill, and came up limping.

“I’m so upset with myself right now,” he said, his eyes sad and his voice cracking briefly. “I had a chance. I made an impression on the coaches, and I took it away.”

O’Neill knows the feeling.

“I talk with him all the time, I throw with him,” said O’Neill. “He reminds me a lot of myself when I was a freshman. I encourage him all the time to keep pushing himself. He gets a little discouraged when the coaches don’t notice, but I tell him, keep pushing yourself, you’re going to do big things.”

As O’Neill speaks, Edison is second in line for the start of the next drill, a shuttle run, and he finishes it strong.

* * *

Stop 3: Jupiter Christian

It’s 11:30 a.m., and it’s pouring out. Arrived at the perfect time to see the Eagles’ practice. They’re having fun running kickoff drills in the rain.

Trey Pendergrass (wearing No. 126) watches as teammate Josh Talbott fields a kick.

As the Eagles work, apparently, the warm, heavy downpour lightens their spirits. A lot of ‘woooos’ and ‘ayyyys’ and laughter, playful pushing and shoving after the whistle, and cracking one-liners about each other.

Coach Bill Powers isn’t in the mood.

“There’s way too much kidding around around out here,” he bellows, silencing the chatter.

Why is he so salty? There’s a clue in the clothing.

Most Jupiter Christian players and coaches practice wearing school colors: shirts and shorts of red, black and white. But there’s one figure pacing the field in a green-and-gold shirt. He’s assistant coach Jim Davis, the team’s offensive coordinator. Look closer, and you’ll see why Powers reminds his charges to take their task seriously.

Davis’ shirt reads ‘Glades Day: 2009 FHSAA Class 1B Champions.’ He’s a walking reminder of Jupiter Christian’s 45-44 loss in last year’s regional final, in which they gave up touchdown after touchdown to Kelvin Taylor and the eventual state champs.

“Just happened to put it on today,” deadpans Davis. “They’re gonna see it a lot.”

And the Eagles will see a lot of the Gators. Whether or not the two meet in the 1B playoffs — and it’s a good bet they will — they’ll start the season at Glades Day, a game that looms large to every Jupiter Christian player.

“That’s the season, right there, whether we win or lose,” said Powers. “I’m comfortable that if we play our game, we’re a better football team. But they beat us, so all the power to them. They go in as the favorites, and that’s OK. We don’t mind being the underdogs.”