Melding talent is coaches’ big test

Posted July 21, 2010, at 3:33 a.m.

    HEBRON, Maine — High school football has undergone an offensive metamorphosis in Maine during the last 15 years.

What not long ago was dominated by a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust mentality is now an amalgam of offensive sets ranging from the tightly wound double wing to the wide-open spread formation.

So when players from nearly all of the 74 varsity programs in the state gather at Hebron Academy for a week of practices to prepare for the Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic each year, there’s a lot of re-education required to get everybody on the same playbook.

“I think the first couple days there’s a lot of learning going on, but I think [Tuesday] we turned a corner,” said Lewiston High School coach Bill County, who will lead the East team into the 21st annual Lobster Bowl, set for a 4 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Waterhouse Field in Biddeford.

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“We’ve now stopped having to think so much and we’re starting to play football. This morning’s practice was a little more violent and a little more like what we were looking for than it had been.”

Nearly 90 of the state’s top senior high school players from the 2009 season arrived here Sunday, and since then have undergone three practices a day in advance of the Lobster Bowl, which annually dedicates all net proceeds to the Shriners Hospitals for Children.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Bangor’s Lonnie Hackett, who last year set a school single-season rushing record with 2,227 yards while leading the Rams to the Eastern Maine Class A title.

“It’s a great charity and it’s something special to be able to play for the Shriners and what they represent. It’s also great just to have one more chance at high school football with all the kids I’ve seen on TV, gone against, battled and hated. Now we’re all teammates so it’s pretty cool.”

For the coaching staffs involved, led by County and West coach Kevin Cooper of Bonny Eagle of Standish, these practices center on how best to meld the state’s top individual football talent into a team capable of winning.

The West leads the series 15-5, but the East has won three of the last four meetings, including a 17-16 victory last summer.

“It’s a really fun process, being able to work with some of the guys we see as opponents during the year who are just fabulous players that we as coaches stress out over on a weekly basis during our season,” said Cooper. “Then you get the Class C and Class B kids that we don’t get to see very much, but we’ve seen them on the highlights and read about them and they’re now part of the team.

“I think that’s what brings us coaches back here to work this game if not every year than every few years. Taking 44 individuals and bringing them together as one team is a lot of fun.”

Building a cohesive unit doesn’t necessarily begin with X’s and O’s.

“The first day we talk about developing trust, and that being a huge key to us being successful on Saturday,” said Cooper. “We all have to develop trust in one another. The players have to trust myself and the other coaches, our coaches have to trust them, they have to trust each other, and that’s hard.

“I think that comes through some hard work on the practice field and seeing these guys getting together when they’re off the field developing some friendships, and finding out that that kid who you thought was a jerk when you played him in Week 5 last year is actually a pretty cool guy. It’s a pretty slow process over the week but that’s part of the fun of working with this team.”

County said the Lobster Bowl typically draws not just the best players in the state, but the smartest, and that helps accelerate the learning curve so that participants quickly gain familiarity with the formations they will be asked to play come game day.

“Obviously we’ve got some gifted kids,” he said. “Take, for instance, Lonnie Hackett from Bangor. Not only is he a gifted athlete, but he’s such a bright young man. When you talk to Lonnie, you know the lights are on all the time, and that’s pretty much what you see here, kids who are focused and motivated and not only good athletes.

“One thing it proves to me is that the mental part of the game, the intensity and intelligence, really plays into making you one of the best players around.”

Then there’s the physical element of the game, always a variable because while some players already are nearing top condition as they get ready to play in college, others for whom the Lobster Bowl will be their last competitive game might not have trained as intensely.

“You get thrown into it pretty quickly, but the muscle memory comes back pretty quick with football,” said Hackett, who will play at Bowdoin College in Brunswick this fall. “You get hit a few times and get the cobwebs out of the way and you’re right back into the groove.”

Osborne golf tourney upcoming

Registrations are being accepted for the third annual Matt Osborne Golf Tournament, to be held Aug. 15 at Streamside Golf Course in Winterport.

The tournament is held in memory of Osborne, a former Hampden Academy student and member of the Broncos’ football team from Winterport who died at age 17 as the result of an accident on Interstate 95 on Christmas Eve 2007.

The tournament will feature a scramble format with a shotgun start at 8 a.m., rain or shine.

Cost is $60 per player, which includes green fees, cart and lunch. Proceeds will benefit the Matt Osborne Scholarship Fund.

Several prizes will be awarded, including for first- and second-place low gross.

Registration deadline is Aug. 1, and more information is available by calling 223-4913.

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