Field of tomorrow

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, October 2, 2010

Austin Packers head coach Matt Schmit goes over a play during practice Thursday at Art Hass Stadium. - Eric Johnson/

Schmit has hoped to bring several players and coaches to Saturday youth football games this season so that varsity players can reach out to the peewee footballers, mentoring them, providing role models that would inspire them.

“Once we get the kids, we need to be positive and keep them out,” Schmit said in a recent interview. “Make sure they’re working hard but they also need to have a good time while they’re here, feel like they’re included in things.”

Bad luck derailed that strategy at the start of the season; bad weather forced the Packers to play their first two home games on Saturdays, at the same time as youth football. For Schmit, it seems like every week has brought another obstacle to his mentoring goals.

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It’s 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon and Coach Schmit doesn’t like what he sees. He blows the whistle, calling everyone to attention. Practices on both sides of the field stop and players who were sitting on the grass stand up. Schmit orders every player to take a lap around the field. As the Packers begin running, Schmit walks over to another coach, muttering to him, “Too much screwing around, not enough focus.”

The other big piece of Schmit’s vision is to push the kids to spend as much time in the weight room as possible. It’s something every coach agrees on.

“We have to make a huge commitment to the weight room,” said Ryan Schwenn, the varsity defensive coordinator. “You have to get stronger, faster and bigger, and the only way to do that, I believe, is through the weight room.”

JV Coach Ed Schmitt, who ran the weight room over the summer, said he didn’t see many athletes hitting the weights. The largest number of students in the weight room this summer, he said, was 42 — five of whom were girls.

Schmitt devised an intensive summer weight training program for football players, enough to keep them busy for five days a week doing 45 minutes worth of weight training or cardio work, depending on the day. Based on talks and training regimens he received from University of Michigan and University of Minnesota athletics staff, Schmitt’s program is designed around speed, building mass and practicing explosion drills, or drills that make the athletes expend a huge amount of energy. Schmitt’s even encouraged students to take kickboxing and pilates classes.

The Austin Packers offense runs through plays under the eye assistant coach Steve Knox during practice Thursday at Art Hass Stadium. - Eric Johnson/

While the coaching staff can’t make strength and weight training mandatory, they’re making as much effort as possible to let players know they need to start pumping iron.

“We’ve got some big kids,” Schmitt said. “But they’re just not physically strong.”

As Thursday afternoon melts away under the hot sun, the Packers are connecting on more drills. The past couple of practice plays have been successful from an offensive standpoint, as the offensive squad is 25, 30 yards away from the end zone. Quarterback Blas Estrada calls for the ball and takes a couple of steps back. He fakes handing the football off to a back running past his right side before he spins around as if he were on ice skates and throws the ball into the air. Jay Ettinger, who beat out the defender trying to mark him, runs into the endzone as he hoists the ball down.

Touchdown. Play completed.

Schmit is well aware of the negative reaction the Packers have received thus far this season. He is determined not to let that bother him, however, as there are still more games to be won. He’s got the team working on its technique, practicing tackling every time, learning new drills and learning from game and practice footage. He knows the team isn’t perfect, but they’re trying hard and they’ve still got immense spirit. They just need the community to get behind them, for the rest of this season and beyond, to make the program successful. It’s going to take the whole community, or so Schmit believes.

As the players meet at the end of Thursday’s practice, Schmit congratulates them, telling the team that although the first half of practice didn’t go so well, they showed great focus in the second, making for a much better practice.

“This is a heck of a lot better than when we started,” he says.