Coach Tom Lee lined his players across the middle of the Aquinas High School football team’s practice field with about an hour left in Tuesday’s first practice of the season.
He instructed — with passion and a little excitement — them that they were about to work on special teams.
They ran in groups of 11 uncontested toward three coaches near the goal post at the end of the field after the player in the middle simulated a kickoff.
Lee stood in the middle of the field and started them with a whistle. As they approached him, Lee shouted encouragement for the rest of the sprint.
“Arm action! Arm action! Arm action!” he bellowed as they ran past.
Another whistle signaled one of the three coaches at the end of the run to raise his hand, and the Blugolds sprinted in his direction.
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The football season has officially begun, and Aquinas joined the rest of Wisconsin’s 11-player programs in hitting the field as a group for the first time on Tuesday.
Lee said the experience was made better with improvements to his team’s practice field, which wasn’t looking so good in June.
“How about this field?” Lee said. “That green stuff out there is called grass. We have painted lines, we have a scoreboard, we have a water trough.
“Our athletic director, Mike Dee, has done an awesome job in making sure this field was ready for us. It was a different story on June 8. So the facility is great, and being out here with the guys is the best.”
The first day of practice isn’t quite what the first day of practice used to be, and coaches appreciate that. Teams are allowed a few summer contact dates to use at their discretion, and that helps make practices like Tuesday’s more of a step during the process rather than the one that kicks it off.
The Blugolds, who had about 50 players suited up, spent a week co-practicing with Onalaska, and Lee said that made executing the plans he had for Tuesday much easier.
“It was so nice being able to talk to everybody and do our basic install (in Onalaska),” Lee said. “This a review rather than something new, especially for our freshmen and sophomores, who had some exposure to it on the field already.”
There is a spotlight on what’s happening at Aquinas after it won the WIAA Division 5 state championship last season. Several impact seniors have since graduated, but contributors from that team are still all over the field for the Blugolds.
Senior quarterback Jackson Flottmeyer, who enters the season with a scholarship offer from Winona State University and interest from even bigger schools, said this team has to focus on becoming the best it can be rather than worrying about what happened a year ago.
“Last year’s team was completely different than this one,” said Flottmeyer, who passed for 2,879 yards and 34 touchdowns against just four interceptions as a junior. “This is a team that’s really going to have to prove itself.”
Lee said during one of the contact dates that he has discouraged apparel and living off of what the 14-0 team accomplished with a 28-26 win over Mayville at Camp Randall Stadium last November.
But there is also no reason that this team can’t be another very successful one with Flottmeyer, Calvin Hargrove, David Malin, Shane Willenbring, Collin Conzemius, Damien Lee and others returning.
“We have a lot of guys who we know where they’re going to (play),” Tom Lee said. “There will also be some position changes for guys because we can’t have a backlog of our best guys all playing tailback.
“We’re also committed to playing 22 starters. That doesn’t mean everyone will only play one side of the ball, but we really want to use our depth to wear teams down.”
Hargrove rushed for 695 yards and 15 touchdowns and led the team with 109 tackles from his linebacker spot. Malin rushed for 385 yards and scored nine TDs and shifts to receiver.
Willenbring anchored the offensive line as a sophomore, Conzemius — a WIAA state sprint champion — has become the top receiving option for Flottmeyer after catching 32 passes in 2021, and Damien Lee made eight of his 75 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
That’s a very solid core for which Aquinas to build on as it enters season No. 2 in the Coulee Conference. The Blugolds won every conference game by at least 33 points last year, but the Coulee has expended to include West Salem — last year’s MVC runner-up — in 2022.
Aquinas hosts the Panthers on Oct. 14 in the final game of the regular season.
The Blugolds hope to make that game a very important one.
Todd Sommerfeldt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @SommerfeldtLAX