St. Michael-Albertville coach Jared Essler watched as his team practiced Thursday afternoon. Photos: Aaron Lavinsky • firstname.lastname@example.org
Opening night for high school football is a cause for great excitement, sometimes to the detriment of doing the small things well.
That’s why many coaches find the biggest growth of their program occurs between the season’s first and second weeks. Gone are new starters’ jitters. Coaches welcome the first full-speed game action of the season. And a week of focused instruction leads to better performances.
“There is a huge jump between Week 1 and 2,” Minnetonka coach Dave Nelson said. “Coaches see what did and didn’t work and you might find a couple players to move around. And you start working on the things you believe in and want to get right.”
Nelson’s Skippers fell 21-17 at Eastview last Thursday. But teams don’t have to lose their openers for coaches to search for improvements just the same.
St. Michael-Albertville defeated Maple Grove 27-6, but Knights coach Jared Essler was quick to point out the teams combined for seven turnovers and 19 penalties.
“Usually, there’s nothing pretty about Week 1,” Essler said. “There are almost always fewer penalties and turnovers in Week 2. And you’re wasting fewer timeouts on personnel changes or wrong formations.”
St. Michael Albertville players ran plays during practice Thursday afternoon.
Essler called Week 1 game footage “the most teachable film of the year” because “as the year goes on, you’re better at your own schemes, so you’re looking more at your opponents on film.”
Nelson said high-definition technology has enhanced the value of game footage.
“You’ve got cameras with views from the end zones and sidelines in HD,” Nelson said. “You can see every angle and every 6-inch step a player takes.”
Those small details are better absorbed by players with their first game behind them.
“There is so much going on in their heads that first game,” Andover coach Rich Wilkie said. “Now they’ve taken that first hit or caught that first ball and have it out of their systems. And they’ve seen how thin the margin for error is.”
To underscore Wilkie’s point, his Huskies lost 28-27 to Bemidji.
Coach Dan O’Brien, who directed St. Thomas Academy to the Class 5A Prep Bowl last fall, said, “It’s on a different scale but whether it’s a senior in the Prep Bowl or a sophomore dressing for his first varsity game, the shock and awe is the same.”
It’s not just players who must get in the groove of a new season. O’Brien, who had 17 new starters in the lineup, said he realized too late that his varsity newcomers aren’t accustomed to certain gameday routines.
“There is a lot you don’t practice ahead of time,” said O’Brien, whose Cadets blanked Coon Rapids 34-0. “We didn’t go over pre- and postgame timelines with them.”
Coaches valued the opportunities game day presented. Teams rarely play their top offense against the top defense in practice. So, O’Brien praised his defense for executing a goal-line stand to keep Coon Rapids out of the end zone.
Wilkie noted his offense and defense each experienced a two-minute drill sequence.
“We were disappointed to lose but the kids got to see a lot of things they can use later,” Wilkie said.
Essler said his staff kept things simple the first week but “as the year goes on, the kids can handle more adjustments and checks.”
Teams statewide will make key personnel decisions and scheme adjustments at different times this season. But what happened the past seven or eight days can’t be understated. O’Brien, a former college coach who also served in various roles with the Gophers, said rapid growth after Week 1 “happens at the college level, too.”
“We don’t want them to be thinking more than playing,” O’Brien said. “Hopefully, that gradually changes so they can play fast.”