Football is officially back.
Pro football is midway through its preseason, college football kicks off today in Cheney when Eastern Washington plays host to Sam Houston State, and high schools opened practices Wednesday.
There is a build-up of excitement surrounding Spokane Valley high school football.
Wednesday marked the first time Freeman has taken the field for a practice session after posting a 14-0 record and the school’s first state championship.
“I think we enjoyed being a state champion, but I think we’re also ready to get back to work,” coach Jim Wood said.
The Scotties roared through the season a year ago with a stifling defense and a juggernaut of an offense. And the scariest part of season was the knowledge that most of the integral pieces of that squad would be back again this year.
Markus Goldbach, who rushed for 170 yards and scored three touchdowns in last year’s state Class 1A championship game, returns to spearhead a rushing attack that is as fast as it is powerful.
The key to last year’s attack was an offensive line that drove defenses off the line as if they were running downhill. It returns almost intact.
And it means that Wood will have to refresh his collection of jokes.
A year ago, after each win, the entire team would rush to take a knee in front of the coach and demand a joke. “Joke, joke, joke,” they’d chant.
Wood would break into a grin and spin a lengthy joke. No one-liners. The kind of joke that has a set-up before the punch line.
They might not have been the kind of jokes that would land the coach a weekend gig at The Comedy Store, but it always sent his team to the locker room laughing.
“I have a couple new ones,” Wood laughed. “I have to find jokes that I can remember after the game. There’s more pressure on remembering than you’d think. I have to find some that I can ad lib.
“It’s a strange little tradition we have here. But it works for us.”
Craig Whitney is energized about his returning West Valley Eagles.
The coach returns 10 starters on each side of the ball along with his starting kicker, and he expects his squad to pick up where it left off a year ago.
“We lost one guy from last year: Marcus Jackson,” he said. “He started both ways last year, so everyone else is back.”
One of the goals Whitney set for the program was to have strong numbers every year, and he’s pleased with the initial turnout.
“We’re close to having 100 guys out,” he said. “We have a few kids out that were on the fence earlier. Our freshman class is strong and I take that to mean that they believe in what we’re doing and want to be a part of it all.”
Last year the Eagles lost their final two games in overtime and triple overtime and finished with a 4-5 record.
“We got a lot of experience last year and I think our guys realized that they needed to keep working hard if they’re going to keep their starting jobs,” Whitney said. “Everyone seems to have come in quicker than they were last year.”
University coach Rob Bartlett initiated a significant change in the way his players prepare for the upcoming season when he took over as head coach and as he enters his third season he’s seeing it pay dividends.
“When Bill Diedrick was here, he had a more traditional view of how he wanted kids to prepare in the off-season,” he said. “It was about getting bigger, stronger and faster. We didn’t even do much stretching before starting practice – we just warmed up and went about our business. Now we put a lot of emphasis on stretching. We still want to get stronger, but we try to incorporate athletic movement with the strength moves.
“I think there’s been a dramatic drop in the number of injuries we have. You still get knee and ankle injuries – I don’t think you’re ever going to change that. But we have seen a big drop in muscle pulls and things like that.”
The Titans, too, have a strong group of returning players from a team that came close to upsetting Kamiakin in a state Class 3A play-in game. The Titans fell behind, 21-0, only to come back to challenge the Braves in the second half, falling 28-21.
The Greater Spokane League instituted a change for this season. Instead of crowning a single regular-season champion, the league now is divided and will crown both a Class 4A and a Class 3A champion.
That means that every Class 3A team in the GSL plays each other and each Class 4A school plays each other.
“I think our league has proven that it can compete with everybody,” Bartlett said. “If you come out of this league, you can play.”
East Valley coach Adam Fisher made a shift in his program’s off-season conditioning program, joining the same program that University, Ferris and Freeman uses.
“I was impressed with the buy-in we got from our kids over the summer,” he said. “There’s something about shared misery, I guess, but I was pleased with our involvement.”
Unlike the rest of the Spokane Valley programs, the Knights have had to squeeze in two-a-day practices right from the start of turnout.
“We don’t have the luxury of waiting until we get equipment Saturday,” Fisher said. “We start back to class before everyone else – we start classes Wednesday.”
The trick, Fisher said, is to make the most of opportunity that presents itself. By the end of Friday’s practice, the team’s sixth workout, East Valley had already installed all of its special teams.
The challenge for East Valley, Fisher said, will be to knit together a solid offensive and defensive line.
“I think if we can do that we can be very competitive,” he said. “We have the skill guys who can make plays if we can give them the chance to with our line play – on both sides of the ball.”