It’s a mid-June early morning in the Arapahoe weight room, and the Warriors’ football team is putting in sweat equity on the power clean platforms while most of their peers sleep. Behind the players wearing sweat-soaked grey shirts that proclaim EARN IT, head coach Mike Campbell revs up his guys while music blares and reminders of the dedication necessary to succeed — All we ask is all you’ve got, one sign says — are everywhere.
It’s a prep football rite of passage that unfolds three to four times per week at just about every high school in the Denver metro area, when teams collectively rise with the sun to converge upon their weights, tracks and practice fields and put in the work that often defines a team’s fate come fall.
“The summer, to us, is about getting stronger and faster, but it’s really more about team bonding, toughness and leadership,” Mike Campbell said. “Especially because we don’t have the kind of numbers that a lot of the teams we play do, and we don’t have the Division I players that other schools do — so we have to rely on the culture we create here in the summertime to get us wins during the season.”
And while the average big-school contender like Arapahoe uses the summer to stay competitive, power programs such as Cherry Creek, Valor Christian and Pomona are all grinding, too, in order to remain in the championship conversation.
“If you’re really serious about competing at the top level of the sport in Colorado every year, you’ve got to put the work in,” Cherry Creek head coach Dave Logan said. “The days of just showing up two weeks before school starts are long over.”
Logan said he’s kept his four-days-a-week, eight-week program consistent over the past 25 years of his prep coaching career at Arvada West, Chatfield, Mullen and Cherry Creek — and that the seven state titles earned over that span are a direct result of his teams’ buy-in during the summer.
“My deal with my team is, if we get an 80 percent turnout rate in the summer, then we don’t go two-a-days,” Logan said. “And we’ve never gone two-a-days in all my time as a head coach, because my kids come out and commit to the workload, and our entire coaching staff comes out and commits to the summer, too. It’s where we’ve always laid the base.”
The Bruins’ program includes a football-specific lifting program, speed work such as interval sprints and agility drills, old-fashioned conditioning as well as the installation of the offense and defensive schemes throughout the summer.
Plus, beyond the intangibles that Campbell described, the summer gives schools competitive advantages that can be measured — like how Cherry Creek boasts 27 players who can squat 400 pounds or more — and those measurables, Logan said, translate to the field.
“That’s the overall team strength that’s essential if you’re going to compete at the highest level,” Logan said. “You might not have the biggest team in any given year, but you have to have good team strength that enables you to hang in there against bigger teams and more talented teams.”
Summer programs are also being tailored to a team’s specific style, as head coach Jaron Cohen has done at Ponderosa.
“We’re going to run no-huddle with a really fast tempo,” Cohen said, “and the way we train our players in the summer is modified to play that type of game in the fall because we’re going to be relentless on both sides of the ball.”
The Mustangs, who made the 4A quarterfinals last season, have also added an innovative competitive wrinkle to their workouts. Cohen appointed six senior captains before the summer started; those captains then drafted other varsity players enrolled in the program to form teams that compete for points and corresponding prizes such as T-shirts and pizza parties.
“Instead of coaches getting on kids, we’ve got kids getting on kids in a positive way,” Cohen said. “And if our players have accountability to each other, it gives them more incentive to get out of bed and get their work in, because a team gets points for everyone showing up.”
Each Friday is competition day at Ponderosa, with the ultimate prize being what Ponderosa strength coach Patrick Nolan calls “the championship bell,” which is a boxing bell with a chain attached to it. Friday’s team winners get to wear it and write on the back of it in Sharpie, and the team already has plans to take their coveted bell out to games this fall.
“We’re all about competing on Fridays and simulating that Friday-night-lights mindset,” Nolan said. “The bell symbolizes the switch guys need to flip in order to go to work and to compete, and it also symbolizes all the dedication they’ll have put in this summer. That should give them confidence running out onto the field when the moment finally comes in September.”
— Patrick Nolan (@coach_pman) June 4, 2017