LANARK – Saturdays this fall will look a bit different for Eastland-Pearl City junior high football players.
Instead of putting on full pads and gearing up for a game against another school, the younger Wildcatz will be going through 7-on-7 drills, a change EPC coach Randy Asche brought before the school boards of both Eastland and Pearl City, and both approved in March.
The 7-on-7s will look the same as the 7-on-7s the high school players go through during the summer, with backs and receivers working on technique, timing and route running while facing a defense consisting of linebackers and defensive backs. There might be some games if there are enough players, but they will be 40-yards and in, no tackling, with the coaching staff keeping a close eye on all of it.
“Football’s the greatest game there is, and, yeah, it’s physical, but it doesn’t have to be at a young age,” Asche said. “We can let them grow up and develop. They’ll get enough hits.”
With EPC coaches working with the junior high kids in 7-on-7 drills, the proper techniques will be instilled in the players from the start, and even formations that EPC will use in high school, many of which are rarely seen on a junior high field.
“We can teach them the formations, route concepts, all the little things,” Asche said. “We can develop a quarterback that probably doesn’t get much time to develop in seventh and eighth grade, how much times does he have, how open is the window? If we can do those things, it will build their confidence up. I don’t know that any of us are the gods of picking the potential of what a kid could be. I don’t know that we know what this little immature kid in seventh grade is going to be.”
With fewer coaches typically at the junior high level, Asche said he has seen issues go unnoticed and turn into habits. Maybe a running back will take a stutter step before moving ahead to take a handoff instead of exploding forward. In a lot of junior high programs, there aren’t enough coaches to see something like that, and a player can get used to doing it that way, a technique he will take with him to high school.
At EPC, the high school players and coaches are on the field with the junior high players and can notice that right away.
“We’re working on that every night,” Asche said. “We have so many more coaches at the high school level, we can watch more things. …We preach to the kids 10,000 reps to make it right. If I can get a couple thousand in junior high, I’m getting them that much closer to perfection.”
Throughout the summer, with EPC varsity players going through many of the same drills the junior high players will be spending the fall working on, the Wildcatz were able to incorporate junior high kids into team nights for varsity. That helps the junior high kids develop those skills they will be using in high school, but also helps bring future teammates together. Asche has his high school players working as mentors to the younger kids in hopes that it will help build a tighter bond when the younger players make it up to the high school level.
He said his hopes with the junior high 7-on-7 is to keep them engaged and make it fun, which he hopes will help with numbers at the high school level. With the two schools in the co-op both among the smallest in Illinois – Pearl City has 133 students, Eastland has 190 – the Wildcatz can’t afford to have players interested in football at the junior high level driven away due to injuries or not enjoying the game.
So far, there has been great turnout from the junior high crowd.
Asche also wants the kids to be safe. With a lot of disparity in the maturity levels of seventh- and eighth-grade players, he doesn’t want to risk a more fully developed player colliding with a less developed player in full-contact football.
Another way Asche is trying to keep the younger players safe is by bringing junior high kids into the Wildcatz weight program. In his 11 years as the coach at EPC, Asche has seen work in the weight room translate into safer play on the field.
“We run three 12-week cycles through our weight program,” Asche said. “Any kid that I’ve ever had go through this program that has completed three 12-week programs has never been diagnosed with a concussion. …I think building up the shoulders, the neck, the core strength, all help those things and eliminate some of those injuries.”
They may not be tackling on the field in junior high, but Asche said if the program trains the mind on the field and the body in the weight room, the players will be ready when they get to high school.
“You get a kid who is built up in [the weight room] who has a nasty mentality, I can teach him how to tackle,” Asche said.