Archived Story

Teams gearing up for spring training

Published 4:29pm Tuesday, April 29, 2014

By Bart Moss

For the FCT

Spring football is one of those annual southern traditions that just seems to get crazier and crazier with time.

Bruce Pearl probably best summed up this football-obsessed state after he was hired last month as Auburn University’s new head basketball coach when he said, “We’ve got to give our fans something to get excited about between the football bowl season and Spring football.”

He may have been exaggerating a bit but probably not by much.

Spring football at the high school level hasn’t reached that kind of craziness yet but it is an important fabric to local programs.

Whether you view Spring training as an integral part of a football program, an opportunity to evaluate players, or just a necessary evil, a waste of time it is not, at least not to Franklin County football coaches.

Every coach has a different viewpoint of Spring training but for some, like Russellville’s first-year coach Mark Heaton, it is critical.

“Being the head coach of a new program makes Spring more important,” Heaton said.

“We have new coaches. We are trying to get to know our players and they are trying to get to know us. We want to build a family atmosphere around our team.

“Typically, I would say that the Spring is an evaluation period. You want to examine depth, try players at different positions, and make adjustments. We are in a different position though. We will be installing a new offense and we have to take it one day at a time and lay the foundation.”

Russellville will host Pleasant Grove at Russellville on May 23 in a Spring game. How will Heaton define success at the end of Spring?

“It’s not going to be about a win or loss,” Heaton said.

“If you play, you want to win, but I’m more concerned with us. How did we handle adversity? Did we stay focused? How do we react to tough situations? Did we play together as a team? Those are the things I will be looking for.”

John Ritter and Ryan Swinney are both second-year head coaches, with Ritter at Red Bay and Swinney at Phil Campbell.

Both men have different expectation levels this year than they did last year when they were in Heaton’s position of getting to know players.

“Last year I was hired about a month before practice started so everything was new to me and the players,” Swinney explained.

“Now that we’ve had the guys in our system, we have some stability and familiarity.

“We are going to work on fundamentals and not get too deep into things. It is very important to get our young guys some experience and look at different guys in different positions.”

One of Swinney’s points of emphasis will be replacing an offensive line.

“We only have one returning starter on our offensive line,” Swinney said. “It all starts up front so we are going to have to work hard on developing experience and toughness on the offensive line.”

The key to spring training for Coach John Ritter and the Red Bay Tigers seems to be development.

“Typically, I like to use spring training to develop younger players and find guys that can be contributors to our team,” Ritter said.

“We must develop our offensive linemen and improve our passing game. We also want to continue to improve on defense and develop guys to play our style of football.”

At the end of the day, according to Ritter, you just want to see improvement.

“I want to see day-to-day improvement in our players,” he said. “I want our players to be physical and push through being tired and sore. I want our players to be mentally and physically tougher. If we’ve done that, spring training will be a success.”

For veteran Franklin County head coaches Bill Smith at Tharptown and James Pharr at Vina, spring training takes on a little different meaning.

With 38 years of head coaching experience under his belt, Smith has seen spring trainings come and go. He sees the positives that can come from it but also the negatives.

“It’s tough on small schools,” Smith said. “We are only allowed ten days of practice and we have guys going to the state track meet, our girls are hosting the area softball tournament, we are pushing up against the end of the school year. It does make it tough to get a lot accomplished.”

That said, Smith says he still looks forward to getting started every year.

“We are moving to 2A next year and it’s a good time to persuade our guys that we can handle the move,” he said. “We’ve played in a tough region and we’ve played teams that will be in our 2A region. We want our guys to be confident going into next season.”

Smith says finding a new quarterback and getting everyone into the system will be his priority.

“We have to find someone to lead our team,” Smith said. “We have to find someone that will step up to the challenge be a leader at quarterback.

“Our numbers are good. We’ve got a lot of kids coming out to play and we have to see where they will fit in our system. It is our job to put the right players in the right positions to be successful and win games.”

Vina head coach James Pharr echoed what the other coaches said and added another caveat.

“I feel like we are always trying to help these players grow up and become young men,” Pharr said.

“These guys are going to be our workforce someday and they need to understand the value of hard work, responsibility, teamwork, and discipline.

“That said, at the end of the day, we want to see our guys get stronger, faster and more physical, especially up front. Blocking always precedes touchdowns.”

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