The countdown to the high-school football season officially starts Monday, when the Georgia High School Association allows teams to begin conditioning practices for the 2003 campaign.
Columbia County's four public-school squads have a little more than a month to prepare for season-opening action, and the time must be used wisely.
"I wish we could come out the first day and be great, but it's not that easy," said Lakeside coach Randy Hill.
This week certainly won't be easy. Although the players won't be in full gear until July 28, they will feel the heat during conditioning practices.
"We're always concerned" abut practicing in the hot weather, said Greenbrier coach Mickey Derrick. "We don't want to work a kid to death. We'll have a lot of water breaks, but it's not how much water they drink during practice - they have to drink plenty of water during the day so they can stay hydrated."
Most of the players have been doing voluntary workouts this summer to stay in shape, but the constant drilling and sprints this week will show them how much more work needs to be done.
"Anybody can lift weights and run," Harlem coach Jimmie Lewis said. "This first week of conditioning will be a whole different ball game. Then when we start hitting, we'll really find out who the football players are."
Marty Jackson, meanwhile, is still trying to find out who the football players are at Evans. The first-year Evans coach is still learning about his new team, and he's already formed some first impressions before the first official day of conditioning practice.
"These kids have high expectations of each other," Jackson said. "They're not worried about the past; they're worried about getting better every day. This is a new beginning."
Evans: Players must report to the school Monday at 4:30 p.m. The Knights will practice from 6 to 8:45 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 8 to 10:45 a.m. on Friday.
Jackson is a coaching veteran, including the past 10 years as head football coach and athletic director at Aquinas, but now he feels like a rookie again.
"I'm very excited. Those butterflies are churning," Jackson said of tackling a fresh challenge with the Knights.
This week the Knights will work on fundamental techniques, and Jackson said "by the end of the first week, we'll have 90 percent of the offense and defense in."
Jackson expects about 70 players to suit up for practice this week, and each Knight will have something to prove.
"No position is set on this team, and that will make for great competition," Jackson said. "Everything is up for grabs."
Greenbrier: Players must report to the football locker room Monday at 5 p.m. The Wolfpack will practice from 5 to 8:30 p.m. this week.
The Pack has narrowly missed making the state playoffs in two of the past four seasons, and Derrick senses that his players are eager to break through in 2003.
"Our kids have worked hard in the off-season, and I think they're looking forward to starting practice," Derrick said. "I know the coaches are chomping at the bit right now."
Greenbrier will stick with its basic game plan, again using the shotgun and wing-T offensive formations. Still, this week will be a time to refresh some memories.
"Basically, we'll be putting the offense and defense in," Derrick said. "We'll do a lot of teaching the first week, and then spend a lot of time doing conditioning."
Derrick expects to have between 95 and 105 players this season, but he wouldn't mind seeing that number rise.
"The more the merrier," Derrick said. "If these kids are willing to go through the practices, they deserve to put on a Greenbrier uniform. We don't cut anybody."
Harlem: Players must report to the football field house Monday at 5:30 p.m. Players need to have a current physical in order to participate. Practices this week run from 6 to 9 p.m.
Baseball is his first love, but after leading the Harlem football team to respectability, Coach Lewis may have found a mistress.
"When baseball season was over, I was ready for football season to get here," Lewis said. "There ain't nothing like Friday nights. The players are excited. They're ready to start playing football. The fans and coaches are ready to get it cranked up."
The Dogs won't be cruising during conditioning practice, according to Lewis.
"We've got to get 'em in shape this first week, get them acclimated to the weather. Nobody likes running, but the players realize they have to do that to be in shape."
Lewis expects to see between 60 and 70 players on the gridiron this week, and they're going to hear an early pep talk from the top Dog.
"We're going to set goals as soon as we get out there," Lewis said. "One of our main goals is to go to the state playoffs. We've got to practice hard and get things together, or we won't have much success in the games."
Lakeside: Players must report to the school gymnasium Monday at 8 a.m.
Through a winless inaugural coaching campaign last year, Hill remained optimistic, and he's bringing that same mind-set into 2003.
"Every team is back to ground zero - we all have 0-0 records right now. We're ready to get things underway this year," Hill said. "I'm happy with what the players did this summer. We've got a hard-working bunch. We're going to be fine-tuning some things, but I think we're leaps and bounds ahead of last year."
Hill expects to have about 80 players on the squad this season, and the Panthers are going to start learning a new trick this week, as Hill plans to install a triple-option offense.
"I think the triple-option fits our kids and our program. It's definitely going to be an advantage," Hill said. "You have to run the ball to have success in high-school football."
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