Story by Griffin Pritchard | Publisher
Photos Courtesy of Coverage Community Schools
CENTRAL ALABAMA SCOREBOARD OFFICE — Back in the day in a galaxy far, far away it seems; when the final bell tolled signaling the end of school high school coaches had to hope their charges were conditioning (somehow) and prayed to all things holy that they came into the season in semblance of shape.
Then something changed – be it philosophy, rules, coaches tired of seeing their charges doubled over reliving the prior night’s dinner – and the summer became fertile soil to sew the seeds of the seasons to come.
“The benefits of playing in the summer is more experience,” said Trey Chambers, coach of the Reeltown High Rebels baseball team. “We know the more kids play, the more ‘in-game’ reps the better. It can be beneficial in summer games to see different things you maybe didn’t do in the spring or give players opportunities in other positions. It’s important to get the players to understand the purpose of summer games in the aspect of progression and to get them confidence that maybe they didn’t have.”
For the longest time, both the Alabama High School Athletic Association and the Alabama Independent School Association had a prohibition regarding summer competition: baseball and softball were relegated to the rec leagues (or burgeoning travel ball and Legion teams), basketball was a sport played in the gyms after workout; volleyball and football practices were held after weights as “voluntary demonstrations.”
But then there was a change on both sides of the respective league coin several years back that has paid dividends in the years since.
“First, schools got four play dates,” said Ron Ingram of the AHSAA. “Then it expanded to allow for three weeks of competition against other member schools during a four-week period. The purpose was to get the kids back into the hands of those who care the most about them. Travel ball teams were taking baseball players, for instance, and playing 40 or 50 games with no regard sometimes to pitching rules. The schools were working out in the summer and it gave them a chance to allow the kids to compete as a school team.”
In the years prior to the rule change, coaches began experiencing a rash of student athletes needing Tommy John surgery (an injury stemming from years that came to prominence in Major League Baseball) their sophomore, junior and senior years. It became such an issue – the overuse injury and the subsequent surgery – that renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews stepped in and brought it to the attention of the media. In the years since, the need for that level of operation seems to have been shrinking in numbers on the high school level.
And playdates aren’t always about competition – Jeff Hines, current basketball skipper at Chambers Academy, chooses to use the summer as a way to build conditioning and strength.
Hines: “I think it’s more important to work on the student-athletes body (building strength, conditioning and core) during the summer. That is more a priority than play dates. I measure [success] by body change and stamina.”
They get after it three days a week for 90-minutes for 22 weeks in the summer and that seems to be a formula for success as Chambers Academy advanced to the postseason in volleyball, basketball and softball.
Chambers – the Reeltown baseball coach, not the Academy in this instance – has given specific thought to the way he crafts his summer as a way to maximize performance saying: ”I set the schedule in continuous three-day increments. I believe this will help the athletes mentally to prepare themselves when they have soreness and not feeling their best during the hot summer days. During those days we cover three areas: conditioning, weights and skill work.”
And it’s interesting – in crafting this article- to see the way coaches within the same league view the summer differently. Jason Fisher at Edgewood Academy uses the playdate metric to build team chemistry through adversity.
Fisher: “I measure success by how well the team meshes together. I want an idea of how they will play together come October and who is willing to put the team first. By playing better competition over the summer it allows me to see the grit my girls will have when things are tough.”
Fisher schedules playdates weekly as a barometer of what’s working and what’s not. And that approach worked as Edgewood won the 2020 AISA Class AA Championship in Volleyball and was one of the Elite 8 at the end of basketball season and also advanced to the AISA State Softball Tournament.
AISA Sports – especially on the girls side – often utilize the same group of student-athletes from season to season unlike their AHSAA counterparts who typically have larger student bodies to choose from.
“The summer allows you to create a much needed sense of identity for the season,” said Darryl Free, coach of the Edgewood Wildcats, who returned to Elmore earlier in the year. “Smaller schools share many players with football, so the summer becomes a vital part of the identity creation and recognition heading into the winter. I set up summer much like a mini season. We do have some dedicated practices weeks early and end with playdates close together. I feel this gives us a chance to see how well we can make adjustments that mimic the timing of the season.”
What makes the summer program interesting is when the two leagues cross over at team camps or at 7-on-7 in football. Edgewood years ago would attend the same camps as Elmore County, Jeff Davis and Carver and would match-up with them.
Most recently, Prattville Christian was able to renew their AISA rivalry (albeit briefly) with Lee Scott at the Auburn University Team Camp.
Jason Roberson – coach of the defending 3A AHSAA Champion Panthers – explains the importance of a competitive summer: “We do not want to be satisfied with last year’s result. Instead we want to improve everyday as a team by giving our best effort and focus.”
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