Dixon football players run through drills Monday afternoon at Reagan Middle School in Dixon.
Dixon football players run through drills Monday afternoon at Reagan Middle School in Dixon. — Michael Krabbenhoeft/mkrabbenhoeft@saukvalley.com

A light rain welcomed football players around the area to the first day of fall practices for the 2019 season.

The rain cooled things down, a welcome change from the high temperatures the opening day of practice has brought in some years, and was never heavy enough to alter any plans at Rock Falls, where first-year coach Kevin Parker was overseeing his first practice at the helm of the Rockets.

“[Rain] can be a fun thing,” he said. “Those are some of my fond memories as an athlete is when it was raining. I don’t think it changes much.”

Over at Newman, the Comets moved their practice up by a couple of hours, though still got hit by some light rain in the early afternoon. Newman has the large multipurpose gym at its disposal, but an IHSA scheduling change this fall made the practice field a better option.

In years past, football and golf would be the only sports opening up practices on this Monday, while other sports got going Wednesday. This year, all fall sports begin practices on the same day, so going indoors would mean the Newman football team fighting for space with the volleyball team and potentially having to dodge one of Aidan Brown’s spikes.

“Even if we had to go inside later, we didn’t think we’d be able to get court space,” Comets coach Brandon Kreczmer said. “We moved [practice] up and we’ll take rain rather than heat any day of the week.”

Kreczmer has taken over for the now-retired Mike Papoccia, and the Comets kept up with a first-day tradition.

“We always start with our Walk of Champions where we don’t even go on the field for the first hour,” Kreczmer said. “We go to the different places that are meaningful to our program, the chapel, the classroom, locker room, and we just talked about the importance of each. That’s a tradition that coach Papoccia had for a long time, so we kept up with that tradition.”

Fundamentals are a huge focus for Newman .

“Just get all our assignments down, because once that comes, then we can perfect it and then be good,” Newman senior end Andrew Wilson said.

At Monday’s practice, Kreczmer was seeing a lot of energy from his players.

“Day 1 you’re hoping they’re excited to be here, and so far they are,” he said.

At Dixon, ninth-year head coach Dave Smith put about 60 players through drills at Reagan Middle School. That number is down from about 70 in the 2018 season.

“I’ll take who I have and I’m happy with who I have,” Smith said. “They’re really good kids. They’re coachable, and they love each other. This incoming freshman group is a really good group, so I’m happy about that.”

With players in helmets, T-shirts and shorts for the first 2 days of practice, there is only so much that can be done. On Wednesday, players may wear shoulder pads, and by Saturday, hitting may begin.

Early this week, it’s about making the most of your time with what you’re allowed to do.

“We’re working on the program,” Smith said, “so we’re creating a new culture here and getting kids excited about Dixon football. That’s the main thing. We’re working the basics – you can’t do anything today. You’ve got no pads on, so we’re working on the fundamentals. We’re working on conditioning. We’re working on being brothers.”

Dixon has a luxury in the form of a returning starter at quarterback, senior Jacob Shafer. He completed 150 of 245 passes in 2018 for 1,551 yards and 14 touchdowns, with six interceptions, and credited his fellow Dukes for his success.

“My teammates make it really easy to step in and do what I’ve got to do,” Shafer said.

A talented senior class that helped the program reach the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season has moved on, but a new group led by Shafer is stepping in. They are eager to show the cupboard is far from bare.

“I just feel like we have something to prove,” Shafer said. “We’ve got kind of a chip on our shoulder.”

At Sterling High School, about 90 players took to Prescott Memorial Field at Roscoe Eades Stadium. Eighth-year head coach Jon Schlemmer noted there are 22 seniors on the varsity roster, a big freshman class of about 35, and overall, the numbers are comparable to the recent past.

“It’s not about how many, but the ones you have here,” Schlemmer said. “The ones that are here are willing to work, and we’re happy to have them.”

When asked the main thing he wanted to accomplish the first day of practice, Schlemmer noted it was basically about doing things the right way. Play fast. Work hard. Don’t let bad habits creep into the practice routine.

“It’s all the little details,” Schlemmer said. “We spent about 5 minutes before practice talking about making sure the locker room is clean. It’s little details like that. We’ve talked about it all summer, but if little stuff in camp isn’t addressed, then it will snowball from there.”

Senior wide receiver Isaiah Yarbrough noted the players are well aware they need to handle their business in a proper manner.

“Before practice today, Cooper Willman, our senior quarterback, he was up talking to us about how we need to pick it up this year, set the tempo and work hard at every single practice,” Yarbrough said. “That’s what we need to do to make our goal, which is to go at least as far as last year. We have the same expectations.”

The Golden Warriors have become one of the elite programs in the state. They have posted records of 11-1, 12-1 and 12-1 the past 3 years. A ton of uber-talented players have come and gone in that time, and Schlemmer is confident this next crew will rise to the occasion as well.

“This senior class, they’ve seen a lot of success, with a quarterfinal and two semis since they’ve been in the hallways,” Schlemmer said. “The standard has been set. I think this group is probably a little bit underrated. I think they’ve been in the shadows, but they’re ready to take their time, and they’ve worked really hard to get there.”

The schedule will have a different look to it in 2019, as it will be Sterling’s first season in the Western Big Six Conference. Rock Island Alleman remains on the slate in Week 3, but Weeks 5-9 against Quincy, Rock Island, Moline, United Township and Galesburg will be new.

Marengo and Pekin return to open the season, while a Week 4 game at Geneseo – another new WB6 school – is always a grudge match.

“Our program is super excited about the opportunity to go into that conference and stack up against some bigger schools in the Quad Cities area,” Schlemmer said. “It’s going to be a great fit. Our kids know they’re going to have to bring it every night to compete in this conference.”

Over at Rock Falls, the Rockets were already working with a tight schedule due to a late coaching change. Steve Disler stepped down at the end of June and Parker was just named the head coach July 17, so Rock Falls is still playing a bit of catchup.

“That could go for quite a while yet,” Parker said. “All of us, even coaches, are still trying to understand each other’s skills and coming together as a team on our own. We haven’t had the whole coaching staff here a lot of days.”

Camps over the summer saw the Rockets only bringing in a couple dozen players. Rock Falls was able to boost those numbers in time for fall practices to start, having more than 40 on the field Monday.

“I’m seeing a lot of new guys,” Rock Falls lineman Ben Blackburn said. “I’ve seen a lot of hard work coming out of some of these guys, and some of the new guys have to get used to everything because they weren’t here for much of the camp. Other than that, I think we’re doing a pretty good job.”

For the time being, the Rockets will work on fundamentals.

“We haven’t talked a whole lot about offense yet, not specific stuff, because we are focused on, first, evaluating what our skills are, and then moving on from there,” Parker said.