This isn’t summer camp, that’s for sure.
That is one of the things players learn very quickly. True, it is a camp held in the summer, but that is about where the similarities end.
Preseason training camp for the Riverhead High School football team isn’t so much about fun and games. It’s about players toiling and sweating under the glaring sun, pushing themselves to exhaustion, fighting for positions, and preparing for the upcoming season. It will not be mistaken for life at a holiday resort, that’s for sure.
Welcome to Camp Shay.
Like all camps, Coach Leif Shay’s camp has rules, rules that place a premium on discipline.
Cardinal Rule No. 1: Thou shalt not cut corners.
A reporter learned that lesson a few years ago when, following a preseason practice, he walked across the corner of an athletic field while the team headed for the locker room. Shay made the reporter turn back and walk around the corner of the field, and that was someone who was not a team member!
“No cutting corners, no coming late, very disciplined,” Reggie Moore, a senior middle linebacker and H-back, said following the team’s first preseason practice on Thursday morning. “He’s a very disciplined man, and that’s how we’re going to be as a team.”
And there are other no-nos, the violation of which has consequences — essentially more work for the offender and possibly his teammates. Jumping offside during a drill is discouraged by extra pushups or getups (in which players fall to the ground and then quickly hop to their feet) as punishment. If a player shows up late to practice, the team does extra running. Practice concludes with a series of 40-yard sprints run by players grouped by their class. Ten sprints must be deemed acceptable by the coaching staff. If a player takes off before a whistle, steps on the starting line or doesn’t run hard enough, that sprint must be run over again.
“You step on a line, you got to go back to zero,” said Kurt Carter, a senior free safety/wide receiver in his fourth preseason camp under Shay. “You jump offsides, you go back to zero. If you don’t know what grade you’re in, you go back to zero.”
That isn’t all.
“Don’t take your helmet off, I’ll tell you that much,” Carter said. “They’ll get on you for that.”
A good rule of thumb for players to follow is that once they walk onto the practice field at Riverhead High School, they’re on. That brings us to another Camp Shay rule: no walking.
“Don’t walk anywhere,” Carter said. “You don’t walk on that football field. The only time you can walk is if you’re off the field and you’re getting water. That’s just about it.”
Moore, an all-county player who led the team with 75 tackles and four and a half sacks last year, said, “It’s all business when you walk on the field.”
There is a method to the madness. With attention paid to the smallest details, the hope is that it will eliminate bad habits, reinforce good ones, and help the team in games.
“When kids get tired, the first thing that goes is their mental focus, and we want to make sure that they’re always focused, even when they’re exhausted,” said Shay, who is in his 14th year as Riverhead’s head coach. “A method to the madness? I don’t know. It’s madness, that’s for sure.”
And an education for young players new to the scene and unaccustomed to the ways of high school football.
“It’s a little bit of a culture shock,” Shay said. “The coaches are getting after you.”
Not all players are happy campers, though. Shay said two players left the team less than 10 minutes into the first practice after they showed up late and the whole team was punished for it. “I never had it happen that quick,” he said. “It usually takes a day or two, so, yeah, that is a record.”
Who is to argue with Shay’s methods? He is a proven winner. His career record speaks for itself: 70-43 (.619).
Last year the Blue Waves went 2-6 — their first losing season since 1998, Shay’s first year in charge of the team — and saw their string of four straight playoff appearances snapped.
Shay knows full well the value of preseason training camp, which he said is the most important part of the season. “You’re establishing your foundation,” he said. “It’s like building a house. If you don’t put together a good foundation, the thing’s going to collapse.”
The Blue Waves will hold two-a-day practices for 10 days. Shay expects hitting to start on Monday.
All of this is being done with upcoming dates in mind. On Aug. 31 the Blue Waves will participate in a four-way scrimmage with the Westhampton Beach Hurricanes, the Center Moriches Red Devils and the Sachem North Flaming Arrows. On Sept. 2 they will have a game scrimmage at Sachem East. This all leads to Sept. 10, when the seventh-seeded Blue Waves will face the top-seeded team in Suffolk County Division II, the East Islip Redmen, in their season opener.
Between now and then a great deal will be done. “A lot of learning, a lot of tears, a lot of hurt feelings, a lot of blood and sweat,” Shay said, “but in the end we’re all going to come together and give it a great year.”
The Blue Waves have about 20 seniors, but not a lot of playing experience. They do have more experience in the skill positions than they had last year, though. Players like quarterback Ryan Bitzer, tailback Jeremiah Cheatom and outside linebacker/tailback Charles Bartlett help. That is why the team plans to make best use of the speed that it has.
“We got to know that we can press the tempo,” Shay said. “We got to utilize our strength, which is our speed this year. We have to know that we can do things very fast and do them correctly with no discipline problems.”
Anthony Stimpfel, a senior offensive tackle and defensive tackle, said: “The new guys got to understand that they got to work hard if they’re going to be out here. It’s tough, but we work for a reason, to get better. This is really important, training on a mental level as well as a physical level.”
“We have to become a team,” he continued. “We have a lot of stars, but we have to come together and become a team. We definitely have some good talent out here.”
During two-a-days, the team practices in the morning, and players have several hours to rest and recover before returning for the evening practice session. But it isn’t the first day of practices that is as telling as the second one, said Carter. “Tomorrow morning, you’ll see who’s tough and who’s not,” he said. “We’ll find out.”
Carter did have advice for newcomers: “Come back tomorrow morning ready to work.”