The age-old coaching proverb, “Championships are won in the off season” seems to ring true at the end of each prep sports season about the time state title gold balls are awarded.
Those clutching the precious hardware are most often the dedicated teens who toiled, sweated and slogged their way through hours and hours of off-season weight training, stretching, speed drills and conditioning all designed to improve their agility, strength and explosiveness.
For proof that off-season programs pay huge dividends, one has to look no further than the Payson High School wrestling program under coach Dennis Pirch from 1973 to 2001.
During that time, the Longhorns grappled to 10 state championships, 23 regional titles, 100-plus tournament championships, a dual meet record of 378-44 and a top 20 national ranking.
By stressing an off-season program in which aspiring wrestlers traveled the country competing in tournaments, camps, clinics and practice sessions, Pirch built the program from the ground up.
Payson High School football coach Jake Swartwood is among those convinced off-season training is the key to reaching gridiron’s promised land. Knowing that, he has scheduled an ambitious summer training camp July 14 to 18 that has attracted five teams to Payson.
Mesa Red Mountain, a Division I school with 2,000-plus students, is expected to bring about 210 aspiring Mountain Lion players to the camp.
Goodyear Desert Edge, which finished 12-1 last year in Division III, is entered in the camp, as are Coolidge, Phoenix Christian and Payson.
Red Mountain, Coolidge and Desert Edge have attended the camp the past several years, but Phoenix Christian is a newcomer.
For the Longhorns, the most important aspect of the camp will be the turnout and Swartwood is optimistic that about 65 players will show up.
“We had 30 to 45 (players) compete in our summer program, so I think even more will come to camp,” he predicts.
Those who participate, no matter the school, will be exposed to an arduous training regime that features almost unheard of four-a-day practices.
Since the early days of prep football in Arizona, players have traditionally dreaded the start of fall two-a-day practices, so having four will be a demanding test of physical and mental stamina.
A traditional camp day kicks off with a 6:30 a.m., two-hour long practice.
After breakfast, the players return to the field at 11 a.m. for an hour of speed and agility drills followed by lunch and skill sessions.
From 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., a third practice session will focus on defense.
At 7:45 p.m., the players from all five teams will gather under the Rumsey Park lights for 7-on-7 or “passing league” games.
Those are traditionally the most so-called “fun” for the players because the games resemble touch football most played in pickup games in parks and schoolyards.
When not practicing, the players will reside on the Payson High School campus.
Swartwood has assigned the huge Red Mountain contingent to set up camp in Wilson Dome. Phoenix Christian will call Rim Country Middle School gym “home” and Coolidge and PHS will share old PHS gym.
The dynamics of a high school camp, such as the one in Payson, are astonishing sights for prep sports newbies.
Inside each camp facility, players scamper in early to stake claim to a site usually near their buddies. Some bring elaborate two-level king size air mattresses, lush comforters, a favorite pillow, smartphones, notebooks, iPads, video games, DVD players, televisions and plenty of snacks.
They have most of the comforts of home.
Some others, usually freshmen attending their first camp, bring only the bare necessities — a sleeping pad and bedroll.
Swartwood is advising the PHS campers to bring, in addition to their sleeping and bed choices, several changes of practice clothes and personal toiletries.
Campers should check in at 10 a.m. Monday, the opening day of camp, in the old PHS gym. The fee to attend the camp is $125, which includes meals.
In addition to Swartwood hosting the upcoming camp, he and fellow coaches on July 8 escorted a contingent of 13 players to a two-day fun-filled retreat at Hawley Lake in the White Mountains.
“(The trip) was a reward for those who had participated in all our activities during the spring and summer,” Swartwood said.
For more information on the upcoming camp, call Swartwood at (928) 474-2233.