In late June, muddy uniforms are only a memory, Friday night lights are still months away from flipping on and that heavy, warm current radiating off the Raider Stadium turf isn’t the electric crackling of big-game atmosphere — it’s literally a heavy, warm current radiating off the turf.
And soaking it all Thursday were some 425 prep football players from Oregon and Idaho who’ve taken over the southeast quadrant of the Southern Oregon University campus this week, for anywhere from $160 to $225 a pop, for a single purpose which is stated directly in the name of the gathering: SOU Football Team Camp.
On Wednesday, players from Grants Pass High School, South Medford High School, Henley High School, Lost River High School, Phoenix High School and Capital High School of Boise, Idaho, arrived in Ashland and got to work, running through drills designed to reinforce the fundamentals and conditioning by repetition but mostly focused on building team camaraderie.
The camp, organized by SOU coaches and ran by the program’s coaches and players, provides the Raiders a modest fundraising boost as well as a chance to show off the school to scores of potential recruits, most of which have yet to decide where they’re going after high school. In its best years, says SOU assistant head coach and longtime camp organizer Nathan Chin, the SOU Football Team Camp brings in about $100,000, roughly half of which goes to the university to cover food and lodging (campers stay in the Greensprings dorms) and the other half to the football program.
“It helps us out as a program, it helps us out with our assistant coaches to kickback to the program,” Chin said. “Even though we’re benefiting so is the school, because we’re feeding them in The Hawk (cafeteria), they’re staying in the dorms. So it’s not just the football program that benefits. We really look at it as a university benefit. We’re getting young people on campus. They get to see Southern Oregon University, and maybe they’re falling in love with Southern Oregon. Every one of these kids, all 425 of these, are potential Southern Oregon University students, so if we can provide them with the atmosphere and the place — this is a great place to be — more people are going to want to come to school here.”
The camp begins each day at 9 a.m. with individual drills, followed by team time and scrimmage time after each of those practices. Following a two-and-a-half hour lunch break that begins at 11:30, the players return to the field at 2 for the afternoon session. A night session includes popular seven-on-seven and big-man competitions. All told, the camp includes about seven hours of football each day, Wednesday through Friday, capped by an awards ceremony Saturday.
Randy Clark, an incoming junior receiver and defensive back at Grants Pass, says he likes what he’s seen from the Cavemen so far.
“Yeah, I think definitely from Day 1 to now I think we’ve already become better as a whole from the team side of things and working together as individuals,” he said. “The group of receivers and quarterbacks are really melding.”
It’s hard not to considering some of the drills. In one, two players are hoisted up onto a teammate’s shoulders and toss a weighted ball back and forth to each other over the field goal crossbar as the rest of their team counts out the number of successful throws.
“It’s a team camp so some kids, they’re not really focused on the individual side of it,” Clark said. “They’re really focused on getting us better as a whole. So if they see someone who’s standing out as a little behind, they’ll step in and say, ‘Hey, here’s what you gotta do to fix it,’ and just really focus on a certain thing. They try to really improve you and make you a better football player."
Lost River head coach Dennis Dunlea, whose Pirates won the Class 2A Mountain View Conference last season, has brought his team here the last three years, choosing SOU’s offering over the popular Gold Beach camp in part because this camp benefits both his players and his coaching staff.
It probably doesn’t hurt that Lost River, like many of the schools that participate here, has an important connection to SOU: Chin was the quarterback on Lost River’s 1997 state championship team.
“I think the biggest thing we get out of it is the team building,” Dunlea said. “We get to spend some time together, we get to do some goal-setting, we get to play some football, obviously. The opportunity for our guys to be coached by Southern coaches is good not only for our kids but also for our coaches. It’s good for our coaches to see what they’re doing and it’s good for our kids to get coached up by them.”
Most of the teams on hand chose to stay in the dorms, but Capital High, another Gold Beach convert, elected to sign up for the discounted ($180 per player) camp-out option, which still includes meals and T-shirts for each player but rather than bunking in the air-conditioned Greensprings, players instead spend their nights zipped up in tents that are set up in the empty space directly east of the main field.
Players were offered frequent water breaks Thursday as temperatures soared into the high 80s (Friday was expected to get into the 90s), and they looked spent as they lumbered off the field toward The Hawk for their lunch break.
Former SOU receiver Matt Retzlaff, now relishing a new role as an assistant coach at South Medford, knows all about the importance of camaraderie to a team’s ultimate success and, as his new proteges headed up for a bite to eat Thursday, the man who holds almost every receiving record in Raiders history beamed as he recounted the progress they’ve already made.
“I can’t be out there on the field with my guys no matter how much I want to be,” he said. “But it’s so rewarding seeing a kid out there when you coach them what to do and he does it. I just feel so proud of them.
“What I’m trying to instill in them is that everywhere you begin, either in school or in the work life, you have a beginning position. So here on the football field for my wide receivers, it’s stance and start. Once we get that down, everything else comes together.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.