(EDITORS NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series about the District 9 football offseason. Today, Bradford High is among local programs that have seen increased participation in offseason activities.)
Thursday marked four months until opening night of Pennsylvania High School’s 2022 football season.
As win/loss records pile up each subsequent Friday night, many coaches cling to the notion that games are won and lost in the off-season.
Not between the borders, but in the weight room. Not in the red zone, but on the hot summer grass.
Many programs have been preparing for months for August 26 – the opening night in District 9. Among them is Bradford, which – after three years of hardship – has seen increased participation in its offseason programs.
The Owls have lost 22 straight games since fall 2019. That hasn’t deterred the numbers this offseason, however, and with a dedicated group of undergraduates, head coach Jeff Puglio’s staff feels like they’re finally turning the pieces on his once-proud program.
“We’ve been surrounded by a lot of negativity over the past few years,” Puglio said. “People are pretty harsh on the football team. I heard it, the kids heard it. I think they’re really excited to go play for themselves.”
Bradford had the skill and speed to compete a year ago but too often lacked the power to win at the line of scrimmage. In response, assistant coaches James Yohe, Bryce Williams and Matt McEwan have overseen an extensive weightlifting program that has attracted athletes from the junior high and varsity programs.
“We started with a stability program and then went into a mix of powerlifting and stability,” Yohe said. “We’re working on a lot of power moves and a lot of things that apply to the game. You have your simple stuff that every program has — bench press, squats, power cleans — but other than that, it’s mostly stuff you’d find in upper-level weight rooms that we’re trying to apply to football.”
As the owls transition into the summer program, they will strive to raise four nights each week. Summer turnout will be crucial, Yohe said, as the team aims to improve speed and power ahead of preseason camp.
“I think a lot of the motivation comes from friendship,” Yohe said. “These guys create good bonds. We come in here, we play music and we have a good time and I think a lot of that has to do with the leadership and the atmosphere we created. It encourages kids to keep coming back.”
“As a staff and as a team, we identified the weight room as an area that we needed to attack this offseason,” he said. “For a team that didn’t win, I was really impressed with the turnout we had. We had boys with us all the time, and others going in and out with spring sports. It was really encouraging.”
STRENGTH IS important, but in Bradford’s “air strike” offensive, speed and agility are paramount.
Gone are the days of the “Wing-T” scheme, which attacked opponents with a variety of rushes and ball carriers. Now the Owls want to throw the ball – a lot – and use their Athletics to spread out defenses and expose their weak points.
“We’re going to be sporty,” Puglio said. “We’re not going to be overly tall, but that’s okay because we value athletics more than size. We will be strong and we will be fast.”
Sophomore Talan Reese is in line for his first full season as starting quarterback after getting his varsity feet wet last year. Reese hasn’t taken the responsibility lightly – he’s traveled far and wide to train, learn and demonstrate his evolving skills this offseason.
Reese’s receiving core did the same. Sunday clinics have seen 25 to 30 athletes every week since the start of the year, giving returnees and newcomers a head start on learning about Bradford’s complicated offense.
“We have a lot of faces that are new to football but the system is designed so someone can come in and pick it up quickly,” Puglio said. “What they do in the seventh grade, we do at the university. The middle school coaches really embraced this change and teach it the way we teach it, so it’s a soccer system. A newcomer who comes in should be able to hit the ground running.”
THE OWLS will eventually begin 7v7 competition at Parkway Field and welcome Kane and Ridgway to watch live competition this summer. Bradford will also travel to Southwestern (NY) and Corry for 7v7 tournaments.
“We really need to see ourselves in that environment,” Puglio said. “Our stuff is more informal but we want to get some competition, especially in July leading into camp. We’re really looking forward to being able to compete and see where we stand and that also puts an emphasis on building up our defense quickly.”
Positivity has littered the Parkway practice field, something Puglio may have missed during the program’s current losing streak. Sixty athletes have already signed up for fall football, the most since Puglio’s freshman year in 2010.
“The fact is we haven’t won in a while,” Puglio said. “The community isn’t really high on Bradford football at the moment and I think these kids want to prove something to themselves and to the doubters that have kind of jumped in their face. This is reflected in our registrations.”
(TUESDAY: District 9 football teams are responding and adapting to a new three-region scheduling format, a change from the major and minor school divisions of recent history.)
(Jeff Uveino, deputy group sports editor for Bradford Publishing Company, can be reached at [email protected])