By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
At the end of their first scrimmage of the season against Northwood High School of Silver Spring, Md., the members of the St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes football team were exhausted and sweating profusely under the late August sun.
But head coach Bernard Joseph was not done with his players just yet, having only started practice sessions with the team the previous Monday and with plenty of conditioning work still to do.
“Who wants to be great?” he shouted as his players gathered in one of the end zones after the final whistle. “They’re done; we’re just starting to work.”
That statement was purely a way to motivate his players, as the Gladiators were soon out on the field to do some conditioning work of their own, but it was clear that Joseph wants to get his players going ahead of the new season as they look for a revival of fortunes in 2015.
The training regime, which has seen the players undergo two-a-day practice sessions at the start of training camp, will be vital for the Saints, especially with so many players lining up on both offense and defense over the course of a game.
“[Conditioning work] is going to come up big in the fourth quarter and in overtime,” said senior linebacker and running back Sam Dyson after the scrimmage. “Once we get late in the season and get tired legs, especially those boys that [play both offense and defense] we’ve got to get in good shape. It’s key.”
After a 4-6 season in 2014, SSSAS are also trying a new offensive system this year, changing from a spread offense that does not focus on one aspect of the offense over another, to a triple option offense that puts more onus on the quarterback and gives them the opportunity to run out of the pocket as well as pass or hand the ball off.
Darnell Clement started at quarterback against Northwood and looked to be settling into the new system, scoring two rushing touchdowns as the Saints looked strong on both sides of the ball.
It was a scrimmage devoid of much of the hoopla of a normal football game, but that mattered little to the players, who went hard at each other for around 90 minutes. There was no clock on the scoreboard, no score kept and no kicking game of any kind, while coaches were on the field to offer advice. Penalties were still given for various infringements, with hits on the quarterback in the pocket being prohibited.
After only a few days of practicing together, some teams might have started slow and at most held an intra-squad scrimmage, but Joseph wanted to see how his players reacted to a real-game situation early in training.
“They get tired of hitting each other,” said Joseph after the game. “All week they’re going against each other, so I want to see what the guys can do against someone they don’t know. It’s easy to go against your buddy sometimes, but it’s good to bring in a team that maybe haven’t seen these guys before and see how they react.”
Now entering his fifth year as coach, Joseph noted the growth in the player pool available to him: he had only 19 players in total when he joined but now has 16 seniors at his disposal. Even with players who play on both ends of the ball, he said that increased depth will be crucial. Injuries, though, remain a constant threat.
“Because of our numbers, we can’t have injuries, and that’s what happened the last couple of years, we’ve had a few kids get hurt in some key positions and it’s hard to replace them,” he said. “This year, I think we have some replacements and some guys that can fill in, so that should help us.”
Consistency will be key for SSSAS this year. Last season was marred by inconsistent play that resulted in two losing streaks of two and three games apiece wiping out their biggest winning streak of two games. Those losing seasons will serve as motivation for Saints, as they search for their first winning record since 2012, said team veterans.
“We’ve just got to remember how it felt to be 4-6,” said Clement. “The year before that [didn’t go] well at all, so we just want to change the culture here at the school as far as the football perspective.”
With their annual training camp at Camp Tockwogh in Worton, Md. following this week before a second scrimmage against Maret and the start of the season on September 4 away against St. Christopher’s School, time is of the essence to get his roster into shape. But Joseph is pleased with what he has seen so far.
“I think we executed well, I think our kids played hard, I think that’s really important for us,” he said. “We were able to see what a lot of different people can do. Some guys we already know what they can do, we’ve got some guys we brought up from the junior varsity team [and] now we can see what they can do.”