Sports

Work It Out

The Flathead Valley’s high school athletes are training smarter, and sometimes harder, to reach the top of their game

Jaxon Schweikert isn’t sure exactly when he started to run his practices this way. And he definitely isn’t sure how he came to create this kind of environment.

But the results? There’s little uncertainty about those.

“I don’t know how we figured any of this out because, I’ll be honest, I’m not a very smart guy,” Schweikert said with a self-deprecating laugh.

Two consecutive appearances in the Class A state championship game later, including a win in last year’s finale, leave little doubt as to the effectiveness of the Wildcats high-tempo offense and even higher-tempo practices. The Wildcats practice at breakneck speed, putting several literal balls in the air at once and conducting drills at a ruthless pace. It’s a way for Schweikert and his coaches to prepare players for the no-huddle offense they will run throughout their high school careers, a system inspired by the innovative, against-the-grain coach Hal Mumme, credited as the inventor of the air raid offense.

Schweikert first saw the system in action when he watched Mumme’s University of Kentucky team in action around 20 years ago. Since then, his teams have operated at maximum speed throughout the week, something that starts in practice where Schweikert’s players “haven’t stretched in 20 years,” eschew traditional conditioning workouts, and his quarterbacks throw at least 3,000 passes in practice before the season even gets underway.

It’s an unconventional approach to not just playing but preparing for a football game, and in the Flathead Valley Schweikert is far from the only one trying to do something just a little different to give his team an edge, keeping alive a sports tradition nearly as old as the games themselves.

The weight room at Whitefish High School. Beacon File Photo

As long as there has been competition, people have been willing to do just about anything to win.

In one famous case, in 1904, an American runner named Thomas Hicks was struggling in the middle of the Olympic marathon so he took a dose of strychnine, a powerful toxin used in rat poison, then chased it with a swig of brandy and another round of strychnine en route to winning the gold medal.

In the ensuing decades, trainers, experts and pseudo-scientists would hawk all manner of strange tonics, bizarre training techniques and newly created exercise equipment, but for most of that time athletic training, especially at the high school level, was still dominated by traditional workouts. Things like static stretching, maxing out in the weight room and brutal cardiovascular conditioning drills like wind sprints designed to push athletes to their physical limits were commonplace on prep fields and beyond.

Chad Ross, the head football coach at Whitefish High School, remembers those types of workouts from his days playing football at the University of Arizona in the early 1990s, where he and his teammates lifted for two hours every day in an effort to max out their muscles.

But the conventional wisdom on that kind of weight training has changed dramatically in recent years and these days most schools, Whitefish included, have adopted a more sensible approach.

“We went from ‘let’s see how much weight we can throw’ to making speed and flexibility just as important,” Ross said. “We’re practicing smarter instead of harder.”

Whitefish’s current training model emphasizes plyometric workouts (also known as jump training) to work fast-twitch muscles and improve a player’s burst in short areas. And in an effort to minimize injuries, Ross borrowed something he saw at Browning High School a few years ago and has started doing twice-weekly yoga with his team.

“I bought into the injury prevention part of it (because of) those overuse injuries from kids that haven’t stretched properly,” Ross, who has done yoga himself for several years to relieve chronic back pain, said.

The Whitefish football team now weightlifts just twice a week during the season and, even then, Ross said his players are not doing so in order to bulk up.

“It’s a strength preservation thing,” Ross said. “We don’t try to make weight gains, we just don’t want to go backwards during the season.”

Trae Vasquez grimaces as he lifts weights at Flathead High Shool. Beacon File Photo

Whitefish actually spends fewer hours practicing than they did nine years ago, when Ross took over as head coach, and that’s something his program shares with its conference rival. In Columbia Falls, Wildcats practices are fast-paced but they are not long — most running less than two hours — and they include no conditioning drills. Practices begin with dynamic stretching (think walking lunges as opposed to toe-touches), but while Columbia Falls practices may be brief they are anything but easy.

“We snap the ball in practice more in the first 20 minutes more than we did an entire practice (20 years ago),” Schweikert, who is in his 27th season as a high school coach, said. “And we used to condition a lot … and we figured out, through trial and error, that (if we conditioned now) we would just run them into the ground.”

While the time commitment on the practice field may have lessened, the actual hours spent with coaches and teammates has not necessarily diminished, especially in Columbia Falls. Wildcats players watch film of practice during their lunch break and students, including non-athletes, of all sizes and athletic ability spend long hours in the weight room, sometimes during the school day.

“Our weight-training classes are the most requested classes in the district,” Schweikert, who is also a physical education teacher, said. “We’re not trying to make you a better powerlifter or a bodybuilder; we expect you to become a better athlete. Our kids come out there and it’s amazing, there’s a great pride to it. Our weight room dominates our entire school setting.”

Weight training’s prominence in high school curriculums extends to other schools in the valley, too, including both of Kalispell’s high schools. At Flathead, Activities Director Bryce Wilson began offering weightlifting opportunities to freshmen for the first time when he assumed his job and the program was turbocharged years later when Kyle Samson, an enthusiastic strength trainer, was named head football coach.

“When I came here 12 years ago, the first football game we watched was against Helena Capital and I bet at every position we could get out-benched or out-squatted by at least 50 pounds,” Wilson said. “And now we compete with every team in the state.”

For some Glacier student-athletes, training for their athletic season is a year-round affair thanks to the CORE (Compete, Outwork, Respect, Excel) program, which began when the school opened in 2007 and offers after-school and summer training opportunities. In the years since it began, CORE has evolved with the times, today emphasizing speed, agility and overall fitness with guidance from physical education teachers Ross Dankers and Aron Deck.

“Right when (the school) opened there was a pretty good shift in the overall mindset,” Glacier Activities Director Mark Dennehy said. “We have a mindset here at Glacier in trying to build that better athlete, in not only the guys but the girls. We really try and focus on the importance of strength and fitness and agility training.”

There is a fine line, however, in working year-round to create the best possible athlete and allowing high school students to enjoy other aspects of their lives or train in ways that match their own interests.

“It’s really individual and really different for every kid,” Christy Harkins, Glacier’s volleyball coach since 2007, said. “Some kids are three-sport athletes, some kids play club sports and have personal trainers, some kids do crossfit or they ski or they do martial arts.”

“(But) I think we ask too much physically of our athletes these days, I really do,” she continued. “I don’t think it’s good for them. I gave my kids all of July off of volleyball just because that’s the only month a kid like (multi-sport athlete) Kali Gulick has off all year.”

Harkins, however, has been a successful high school coach for 27 years and knows, for better or worse, that when there’s a game to be played, the schools, athletes and coaches involved are going to do everything they can to win them.

And somewhere between pushing too hard and not testing athletes’ limits is the sweet spot, a place Ross and his Whitefish football team found in 2015 when they won a state championship behind all-state quarterback and weight room devotee Luke May, now a safety at Montana State University.

“I think of kids like Luke May, he would go and lift on his own and he would do more afterwards and I would be, ‘dude, you’re overworking your body,’” Ross said. “It’s a thin line between great results and too much.”

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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