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BHS Panthers work up sweat-soaked storm

Like the calm before a storm, the air hangs heavily in theBrookhaven High School field house. BHS head football coach AndrewHickman holds a spiral notebook in one hand and an ink pen in theother as he surveys the room.

The weight training room is filled with football players,standing shoulder to shoulder along the walls as Hickman barks theroll call. They pay strict attention and there is little talk amongthe athletes. It’s the last Thursday in June and the players arefamiliar with the routine. They conclude a series of stretchingexercises before the real activity begins.

The players break out of the group huddle and pair up. Hickmandelivers the orders. “Work hard. Give it all you’ve got for 15seconds. Then swap with your partner.”

There are 10 weightlifting stations written on the boardattached to the wall. Next to it is a list of the players names. Agood workout usually lasts 45 minutes.

This is Thursday. It will be a full body workout, going from theneck to the ankles. In a few minutes, the players will be soakedwith sweat. The clanking of metal plate against metal plate and theloud thump of the weights hitting the rubberized floor are mingledwith grunts and groans and deep gasps for the humid air.

Hickman and his assistant coaches provide vocal encouragement asthe players move from one station to the next. “Keep it up! Keep itup! Don’t stop now!”

The weekly, offseason routine is repeated at most high schoolsin Mississippi, at different levels of intensity and dedication.Football is a Friday night form of frenzied worship and it is No. 1in the Magnolia State.

In the high school football wars, only the strong survive.Coaches stress the importance of an offseason conditioning programand preach it with the fervency of a religious zealot.

“Right now is when you start trying to win games,” explainedHickman. “You can’t wait until August. It’s very important to haveparticipation from your team during the summer workouts.”

Hickman said around 45 players have been meeting three nights aweek for the workouts. “I want my team to be in good shape whentwo-a-days (practices) begin,” in early August.

When the first game of the 2001 season kicks off on Aug. 31,players are expected to be in peak condition. Besides theiropponent on the line of scrimmage, they must be able to cope withthe energy-draining heat and humidity which usually lingers intoOctober.

“If you send a team out there (to a game) that isn’t preparedphysically, you can get torn up,” said Hickman.

Every month Hickman and his staff evaluate and grade theprogress of each player. The six categories include bench press,squat and clean in the weight room. The others are 40-yard dash,vertical leap and shuttle run.

“These kids feel good when they can look on the charts and seewhere they have improved,” said Hickman. “It helps them realizetheir hard work is paying off.”

Hickman said keeping a record of each individual’s workout alsohelps recruiters. “If a college coach comes in here and wants toknow about a player, we’ve got the information right there in frontof him.”

Although 22 players are on the field at one time there are many,titanic, head-to-head battles taking place, often in thetrenches.

Senior offensive guard Kern Hoff said weight training isimportant. “It benefits you overall because you’ll be stronger andin better shape.”

Hoff said Hickman’s well-organized work ethic will benefit thePanthers this fall. “These workouts are a lot more intense. Youaccomplish a lot more.”

Hickman said he requires the players to gather for two hours onMonday, Tuesday and Thursday nights. “The kids have responded well.They all have a chance to get a job and work during the day,too.”

Rayshone Autman, a towering 6-foot-6, 261-pound senior tackle,has set several goals for the offseason. “I want to bench at least300 (pounds). I want to work on some things that will help me playat the next level.”

Autman said dedication to the offseason program was importantand the whole team benefited. ‘It’s up to us seniors to lead theway. We want the young guys to get serious.

“When I was in ninth grade, I wasn’t interested in workingout.”

Jules Pitts, recently hired as an assistant football coach, alsoserves as the strength coach. He coached with Hickman at GeorgeCounty.

Hickman said strength is a key to success on the gridiron.”Running backs must be strong. They must be strong enough towithstand the pounding they take and be able to run throughtackles.”

Recognizing the war in the trenches, Hickman said, “When you getin a one-on-one situation with an opposing lineman for fourquarters, whoever is the strongest is going to win thatbattle.”

And the strongest team usually wins the game, too.