According to the IHSA calendar, high school football practice doesn’t officially start until Aug. 11.
But any coach who waits that long to prepare for the season has dug himself into a hole he may not be able to climb out of.
The growth of football camps and seven-on-seven tournaments, combined with the IHSA’s decision several years ago to allow coaches 25 contact days with their teams during the summer, has changed the nature of preseason practice.
“We start off in June at McKendree (University) every year with a seven-on-seven tournament,” said Belleville East coach Tim Funk, “Last weekend we went to another seven-on-seven camp at Chatham Glenwood (High School).
“Our own camp was June 14-17 and other than that we practice every Tuesday and Thursday. The way the rules are in the state of Illinois, you’re set up to practice all summer long. The IHSA gives 25 contact days, but we only use 16 of them.
O’Fallon practices in the morning for three weeks in June and three weeks in July, incorporating some seven-on-seven into those sessions.
“We don’t do leagues or anything - everything is on campus and our attendance has been very high,” said Panthers coach Brandon Joggerst. “We’ve always kept it in house and it works for us. We get 25 contact days from the IHSA and we usually don’t use them all, but we use a good portion of them.
“I guess you could call (summer practice) a necessary evil. It’s a different ballgame in the summer than it was 10 years ago, but you have to keep up with the Joneses.”
Althoff, other than attending a seven-on-seven/lineman camp at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, has spent most of the summer close to home, scrimmaging against other Metro East team. Third-year coach Ken Turner uses all 25 contact days, but eight of them are the Crusaders’ football camp, which started Monday and continues through Thursday. The camp resumes July 26 and runs through July 29.
“If you don’t take advantage of what you can do with summer football, you’ll be behind,” said Turner, whose players will don helmets and shoulder pads for the camp. “It means we get a lot more time to prepare for our first game, which is (Aug. 27) at Collinsville.”
Turner, who spent eight years as an assistant at Althoff under Glenn Schott, has seen summer football, particularly seven-on-seven, become a bigger part of the overall picture during his coaching tenure.
“Seven-on-seven is important in terms of teaching kids to play your offense and to compete against someone else instead of just practicing against your teammates.” said Turner, who played at East St. Louis under Bob Shannon. “It helps more if you throw the ball a lot and helps you to work on your pass defense.
“But it’s not the most important thing because it’s a lot different when you put a line out there. You can have a team that wins in seven-on-seven and doesn’t win in a real football game. You can’t put too much into it.”
Belleville West, meanwhile, has been practicing on Monday and Thursday mornings.
“We have our camp early in the summer and get things established before it really gets hot,” said fourth-year coach Ric Johns. “We try to have a weekly routine after that. It’s what we’ve been doing since I’ve been at Belleville West and the concept is close to what we did at Triad. We work hard, but it gives the kids a chance to have a summer.”
Johns was head coach at Hardin Calhoun from 1981 to 1995 and head coach at Carlinville from 1996 to 1999 before spending seven years (2000-06) as offensive coordinator at Triad.
“As a coach, you always try to come up with a perfect plan (to prepare for a season),” Johns said. “Some guys have better plans than others, but I really like what we do.
“When I was a player and first started coaching, you would lift weights and stay in shape all summer long and you’d have two weeks of double sessions before school started and you would put everything into that. This year we have four extended sessions after practice starts on Aug. 11, then you’re starting to phase into the school year. If you tried to do everything on the back end the way you used to, you would be in serious trouble. You just don’t have enough time.”
At Freeburg, coach Ronnie Stuart’s squad has been practicing on Tuesday and Thursday since June 1.
“We work on conditioning and we practice after that,” Stuart said. “We went to a team camp at McKendree the first weekend of June.
“We also went to a seven-on-seven camp at Carrollton, which is where I graduated from. It’s kind of a cool thing for the kids to see my old high school and the town I grew up in.”
After a practice on Thursday and two more on July 27 and 29, Freeburg will have used 14 of its allotted contact days, with the possibility of seven-on-seven games against Belleville East and Vandalia.
“It’s tough to get the right mix during the summer, making sure you stay up with other programs while still making sure the kids have a summer,” Stuart said. “I feel the Tuesday-Thursday routine works pretty well for us. It gets us where we need to be.”
At Mascoutah, second-year coach Scott Battas has been holding morning practice sessions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
“We went to a seven-on-seven tournament in Carbondale and went 3-2, which I feel pretty good about considering we have a bunch of young kids that don’t have much experience,” Battas said. “We scrimmaged against Mater Dei a couple times and we were at O’Fallon last Tuesday along with Mater Dei.
“With a year under my belt and a whole offseason to prepare, I feel a lot more comfortable with what I’m doing. Because of that, I feel we’re ahead of where we were last year.”
Battas likes to use all 25 contact days.
“School starts for us on Aug. 11, so we won’t have any two-a-day sessions,” he said. “I feel like what we get done in July is really the most important part of our preseason. Whatever we get accomplished in August is a bonus.”