Coach: What to watch for on football's first Friday night
Opening night of high school football is upon us, and oh how sweet that sounds.
The glorious beauty of a new season combined with an atmosphere of anticipation, nervousness, excitement and optimism, all with a large dose of " let's go!" thrown in just for good measure.
Fans, players, coaches, parents -- and even old sports writers -- stand ready for the action.
Nobody, of course, is more so excited than the players themselves. They have been working all summer -- check that, since last school year -- trying to improve their conditioning, strength, speed and agility, often with personal coaches, and, of course, all those grueling practices in the summer heat as well.
But now, it is showtime! The Friday night lights get turned on starting tomorrow, and as the fans pour in filling stadium seats and the band and cheerleaders do their thing, it is finally game time. A chance for the players to at long last hit someone else in another colored jersey instead of teammates in practice.
Word of caution: At times we can put too much emphasis on the opening game. It is but one of many, and any success or lack thereof in the opener does not by any means portend for the future of the whole season. But still, there is only one "opening game" each season, so it matters for sure.
Here are some things you may want to look for on this first night of football:
• For many of the players, this is their first varsity game. The aforementioned big crowds, band, cheerleaders and playing under the lights is a whole different atmosphere than most of these guys are used to, and they will need to adapt.
This applies especially to juniors who have worked their way through the system, meaning the junior program, freshman team, sophomore team last year and now on to the big show. Ditto for any young sophomores talented enough to be brought up to the varsity and, to a slightly lesser extent -- but only slightly -- the seniors who may have stood on the sidelines last year as juniors waiting for their time.
For them? That time is now.
• Watch the boys in the trenches. Particularly, the big fellas playing on the offensive line. Maybe no other position in football requires cohesiveness and in game teamwork and communication like the five guys on the offensive line (we can throw in the tight end here for good measure).
How they perform, how they compensate for each other, how quickly they work through the "kinks" and how aggressive they are right from the onset will be good indications of a team's game one success.
• The passing game. High school football used to be very run oriented, with the pass thrown in just on occasion to keep teams off balance. But that was then. Nowadays? Quarterback camps, personal trainers, seven-on-seven passing leagues and young, creative head coaches who grew up with a pass first philosophy have all added to the more wide open style in high school football today.
Don't look for teams to wait and ease into the unveiling of their passing attack. The kids today are confident and ready to come out throwing right from the git-go.
• Special teams. Sometimes early in the season, the "special teams" just haven't been emphasized enough in practice. Easily overlooked in preparation for the opening game, so keep an eye on the punters, kickers, coverage teams, return men and not to forget the most underrated of them all -- the long snappers. How they perform can often dictate a team's success, not only in game one, but all season long.
• The coaches. Game one is an adjustment for the coaches as well. Sideline protocol has to be worked out, and they too have to work in sync, with each having a specific responsibility. Many of our schools have some new assistant coaches, so they all have to get used to the game day routines and procedures.
• Mistakes. There will be team and individual mistakes, for sure, especially in game one. Rare is the team who puts together a flawless performance in their opening debut. The key is how you handle the mistakes. Coaches at all levels drill into their young athletes' minds that if you make a mistake, or if something bad happens, quickly move on. The game waits for no one, so best to just concentrate on the next play.
• The schedule. Let's do a quick breakdown for each of our coverage teams:
The Spartans' recent move to the bigger, larger CSL South division has proven challenging, but head coach Matt Purdy is using all of his master psychological techniques to get them to believe they can compete with the big boys.
The Spartan season begins with an away game at Taft. Two tough Mid-Suburban League teams then await in Rolling Meadows and Conant. And then? Starting Sept. 23, an almost too cruel to be true four game "gauntlet," starting with Maine South and then following in order: Evanston, New Trier and Glenbrook South.
Survive that and anything will be possible for the boys in green and gold.
Best game: A week two battle with Deerfield should be outstanding.
The Titans will host always tough Rolling Meadows in the opener, and then go on the road to battle Carl Sandburg High School and Fremd. The middle of the season features the "meat and potatoes" of the schedule, as they go back to back with Maine South and New Trier, and then host the upset-minded Spartans in what many might call a "trap game."
Best game: The season finale at home vs. Evanston. A great rivalry, and potentially a state playoff berth on the line for both teams.
They will be at home tomorrow hosting Hinsdale South, and then will follow with two Mid-Suburban League crossover games, which are not easy ones, as Buffalo Grove and Hersey await. An early season battle in week two with Glenbrook North could be a classic, and other conference opponents like Maine East, Maine West and Niles North have improved.
Best game: Almost every year, it is the "Battle of District 113" vs. Highland Park. The Warriors will host this year, but this game between kids that have played together in youth programs and many of whom know each other as friends off the field never fails to disappoint.
The Ramblers, as per usual, are two deep and even three deep at every position. A gluttony of riches if you will, but John Holecek and his outstanding staff have put together a program that seems to challenge for the state title every year.
After Sunday's opening home game (get there early!) vs. Ohio powerhouse St. Xavier, comes a battle with East Moline United and then two big Catholic League games featuring tough rivals St. Rita and Brother Rice. Mt. Carmel is the final game and that is a powerhouse vs. powerhouse rivalry
Best game: Sept. 30, the long road trip to South Side Marist High School. Marist is one of the few teams with the depth of talent to match up with the Ramblers, so it should be a good one.
The opener is at home against Leyden, as the Giants will line up under new head coach Anthony Kopp. An interesting week two home game with Chicago Public league powerhouse Hubbard will be one to watch. The early season schedule is tough, but if they survive somewhat intact, HP could get on a roll at season's end.
Best game: As mentioned above, the Sept. 30 rivalry game with Deerfield. Always fun, with a big crowd on hand.
There it is. Some schedule highlights and some things to look for. Now? Get ready for kickoff!
• Jon Cohn of Glenview is a coach, retired PE teacher, sports official and prep sports fan. To contact him with comments or story ideas, email firstname.lastname@example.org.