Looking out over the Orangeburg Prep practice field on Monday afternoon, the first official day of football for South Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association teams, head coach Don Shelley witnessed a sight not seen on an Indian practice field since the mid-1980's.
The Indians, which advanced to the SCISAA Class AAA semi-finals a year ago, dressed out 47 players on Monday, the most ever for an Orangeburg Prep varsity football team according to Shelley.
"The first year of Orangeburg Prep we dressed out 44 guys so this would be the most we've had," Shelley said as the team lined up for sprints. "Basically, with the numbers that we have returning we'd like to shuttle 11 in and out on offense on defense. Ideally that's what we'd do, but we're going to have to find out."
OPS issued a statement to the rest of the Class AAA ranks last year that the Indians were again a force to be reckoned with, and this season, with the amount of returning starters the team boasts that statement may be force fed all the way to the state championship game. The same amount of overriding enthusiasm from the players that was clearly evident last pre-season was also present at Monday's practice. There were no complaints from players about the amount of running and no one lagged behind enough to draw the wrath of the coaching staff.
"We love running," one player even yelled to his team mates as upper-classmen encouraged new players and freshman did their best to absorb as much information as possible.
The Indians broke into team offensive drills in the first half of Monday's afternoon session with the offensive linemen working on footwork, speed off the line and blocking to the whistle. Meanwhile, receivers ran precise routes and quarterbacks honed the release on their throws. The heat was a factor, but one that was dealt with in the manner in which it is dealt with each and every August.
"We got off to a slow start in the morning session (the Indians practice twice daily this week) and by 9 a.m. it was starting to get hot," Shelley said. "We have to be careful with the kids. Their bigger and stronger than when I played, but yet they're not really acclimated to the heat. Especially the first few days, keeping the kids safe is our main concern."
After a water break the squad shifted to team defensive work.
Shelley took the linebackers, which featured returning starters Dusty Dukes and Britton Whetsell, and drilled the group in their respective assignments defensively and proper technique to shed blocks and make tackles. Understandably, veterans such as Whetsell and Dukes resumed the correct fundamentals in short order, whereas newcomers took to the task a bit more slowly and cautiously.
"These practices, we as coaches are testing the enthusiasm of the players and working on fundamentals," Shelley said. "The players are probably just trying to survive at this point. We've known for several years that our numbers would be up this year. It runs in cycles, but all but three of the players have been in our system now for a while."
Monday was also the first official practice for last year's SCISAA Class 2-A state champions, with a lot of new faces. About half of last year's team has graduated, and head coach Stanley Gruber hasn't seen just what he has for this year's season yet.
The team's first game will be at home on August 23 against Lawrence Manning, and Coach Gruber spent much of Monday's practice going over his playbook for the newcomers.
The Raiders had a similar rebuilding year after their state championship run in 1999 and still made the state playoffs in 2000. Returning linebacker Chris Myers remembers that year, and said that the team didn't really gel until the fifth game of the season, "and this year looks a lot better than that one."
On Monday, Gruber would only say that the team has plenty to keep it occupied in practice time for the time being.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Gruber said. "A lot of work."
Over in St. Matthews, a rigorous voluntary summer workout and conditioning program installed at Calhoun Academy by head coach Adam Jarecki was already paying immediate dividends on Monday.
"My kids looked good," Jarecki said. "They worked hard this summer and they're in pretty good shape. I was real pleased with their summer workouts and its really showing up. We went through two practices and everybody hung on and that's a good thing. The night practice we let all the junior varsity kids come out with us but we're all getting some work done."
Overall numbers will not be an advantage for the Cavaliers this season, which practiced with 28 players on Monday, but Jarecki says that the players on hand are dedicated to working hard.
"The numbers aren't as strong as they've been, but the players we have want to get after it and that's exciting," Jarecki said. "We don't have a standout player or players so our success will be determined by how we gel together as a team. I was as pleased as I could be after the first day. We had lots of life out there and I can't ask for any more than that."
The Cavaliers and Indians square off in their annual grudge match to open the season on August 23 in St. Matthews. Last season the Indians emerged with a narrow 16-15 win in what was a classic affair at Indian Field.
T&D Sports Writer Mike Rosier can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by office phone at 803-533-5529.