Benefield: Real work begins for Empire’s football teams


Ke' Shawn Walker, left, does a plank exercise with his teammates during Montgomery's first day of football practice on Monday. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Ke’ Shawn Walker, left, does a plank exercise with his teammates during Montgomery’s first day of football practice on Monday. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

There is a trick to making the sled move.

You don’t have to be big but you and the guy next to you and the guy next to him have to work together to push the pads and steel frame across the grass. It’s hard to do when you are tired.

Late in Montgomery High School’s first official practice of the 2014 football season Monday, the sled wasn’t moving. The Vikings were on the ground — doing push-ups.

Get the snap count wrong? Hit the ground. Everybody. Even the guys standing in line who had nothing to do with the mess up. The Vikings must have done 60 push-ups when player after player jumped the line too soon.

That’s when senior quarterback R.J. Flores stood up and urged his teammates to concentrate, listen and communicate.

“We’ve got to focus, guys! We’ve got to focus,” he said. “It’s not the push-ups part, it’s the jumping part.”

Monday marked the official start of the Empire football season — the day when months of conditioning, weights and skill drills culminate in full pad practices with an eye toward opening day and the season ahead. The day when coaches and players use months of workouts to gauge where the squad is and where it might go this season.

The Vikings, as well as squads across the Empire, strapped on their pads and marched onto the field to the unspoken: “Here we go.”

It’s also the day documents are due: physicals, permission slips and other forms. No paperwork? No play. Montgomery High athletic director Dean Haskins stood on the edge of the field, a sheaf of pink and white papers in his hand making sure that all athletes were cleared to play.

The five who didn’t have their documents? They spent the two-hour practice running around the outside of the field, looking suitably miserable. From here on out, it’s all business.

Last week was summer, this week is season.

Montgomery’s first year head coach Marcelo Bautista felt it as much as anyone. After a decade holding multiple posts with Vikings football, Monday marked his first-ever opening day as the man in charge. The guy with the clipboard and the title.

“(It) is the first day of practice of 2014,” he said, surveying the field where the Vikings will play their season opener at Napa High School on Aug. 30. “We want to set the tone. Where is your attitude regarding commitment? Where is your attitude to the program? What is your commitment to school?”

Whether squads posted a 10-2 record or a 2-10 record last season, all teams are starting anew this week, according to Sonoma Valley head coach Bob Midgley.

“In high school, you are always rebuilding,” he said. “You only get guys for two years.”

That’s two years for players to learn plays, learn positions – learn their teammates. That’s two years for leaders to emerge and team chemistry to be built. That’s two years to earn the trust of the guy next and prove that you that you know the snap count as well as he does.

That’s why Flores was frustrated Monday when the Vikings were jumping offside and the sled just sat there — a torment to tired bodies.

“It’s really about mental fortitude,” he said. “It’s working as a unit. If you don’t … it feels like it weighs 2,000 pounds.”

On squads throughout the Empire, the new season offers a chance to solidify reputations or shake off doubts. For Flores, who led the Vikings to North Coast Section playoffs after taking over for the injured starting quarterback midway through the schedule, this season may be a little bit of both.

He bristled at the notion that because the bulk of last season’s receiving crew graduated, there is a question mark whether the Vikings will be able to connect in the air.

“The way I look at it, it’s just a chance for me to find all new people,” he said.

New season, new people. Across the Empire, new players are trying new positions and new plays are being drawn up for new units.

It’s the magic of a clean slate.

“We definitely have the players with talent,” Flores said. “It’s just exciting because nobody knows about them yet.”

Introductions start the weekend of Aug. 29.

You can reach Press Democrat sports columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or and on Twitter @benefield.