ONALASKA — These are the days football players and coaches reference as, “putting in work in the summer,” when they try to explain a player or team’s success during the season.
No pads crashed into one another, there wasn’t the urgency of a game coming up, and it wasn’t as crisp as the practices you’d see on the same field in about three months.
But donning helmets, shorts and (mostly) cut-off T-shirts, the Onalaska High School football team got good work in Thursday as it wrapped up its WIAA-sanctioned contact days at Lawcon Field.
“The biggest thing is seeing how guys have developed from last year,” Hilltoppers coach Tom Yashinsky said as his team trekked back to the high school on a warm afternoon. “Getting guys back into the mindset of football. There’s a lot of things they juggle in the summer, between baseball, basketball, lifting. But just getting guys looking forward to the season.”
Contact days, of which the state allows coaches to have five, allow coaches to run a full practice during the summer months. They don’t have to be used consecutively.
In football, physical contact is limited to using bags or shields to limit blows to players’ bodies. For Onalaska players, Thursday was about getting lots of reps in their drills. With a good number of future players not practicing due to other sports commitments, the Hilltoppers had about 40 players on the field.
“It’s awesome that we can get all the older guys through, but you can also get the younger guys reps that they might not get later on,” said Onalaska senior-to-be Jack Weber. “You can mix in some new players at new positions. It’s a good learning experience to see what works.
“We just want to keep progressing. I think we’re going off a lot of leadership from last year. They were big leaders, and I think we’re going to continue that.”
A lot has worked for Onalaska in the past two seasons. Two years ago, a senior-laden squad won the outright MVC championship with a high-flying offense. Last year, a little more balance a first-team all-conference performance by quarterback Noah Skifton put the Hilltoppers into a three-way tie for the conference title.
That’s the product the team is hoping grows from the seeds being planted with workouts like the ones scheduled this week and the effort being shown the weight room.
“(Contact days are) like a little head start for everything,” senior-tackle-to-be Ryan Kujawa said. “It gets our younger guys into the fundamentals and getting used to our program, so we’re ready to go August 1.”
These are also the days when coaches start identifying who their leaders are.
Yashinsky said that process is a culmination of a lot little things — who’s getting to the field early, who’s getting to the front of the line to lead drills, who’s asking the questions that need to be asked. It isn’t always a comfortable transition, but Yashinsky sees the guard changing with his team.
“Are guys going to step up and be leaders and realize it’s their team now,” he said. “They’re no longer a sophomore or a junior; they’re in charge.”
A practice in late June isn’t going to be the difference between making the upcoming season one with or without a playoff appearance. But it can be the start of something — a player gets confidence doing a drill, or finally gets the hang of a technique, and it is used as a springboard to the next thing.
We hear about “the process” ad nauseam, but contact days are an important piece to the process of building momentum for fall camp.
“Everyone who’s here gets better,” Yashinsky said.