Quick, quick! On the whistle, on the run! The new-look Jags frontload their conditioning at the beginning of practice, with a 15-minute session of successive drills done at full speed, the kids carried along on one continuous wave of enthusiasm marshaled and punctuated by Coach Gabe Pena strong and insistent bleets on the whistle.
"Come on, let's go!" shouts one of the assistants as he herds his charges from one area to another. At one place they might be practicing getting low, under some metal bars. At another, footwork through the ropes, you get the picture. "It's all a competition, we have to win every drill!" hollers another assistant.
The intensity is palpable, despite the 100-degree heat that annually greets campers at two-a-days like an old nemesis. When Econ kicked off the Pena Era last week, it did so in the orderly, fired up way the new coach has done everything since he arrived in the spring. A true dedication to practicing like a playoff team is a huge part of his philosophical approach, and it is manifest physically in how he deals with the kids in this practice-opening routine.
"We wanted to change things up, and give the kids something to look forward to," explained Pena, who took over for Oscar Salinas and will lead the Orange forward in 2011 as only the second mentor in school history. "Teams usually do their conditioning at the end of practice, and maybe they save something for that, taking a break at times during the workout. With this deal, if they work hard at these quick, timed drills, they get their conditioning in and can focus the rest of the day on learning, technique, that sort of thing."
It is just one of the subtleties that has defined Pena's arrival at the scene, and he seems to thrive on the mental side of things. He knows that he's up against a tough mountain at a place where winning admittedly has been something other programs do with regularity. But he is prepared, and gradually, the players are getting there too.
"They lost a lot of games in the second half last year and we are determined to change that, to become finishers," said the former Weslaco assistant. "But now we seem to have a hungry bunch on our hands, they want to be different, they want to show the Valley that they can win, and they have bought into everything we are trying to do."
Tackle Luis Prieto, one of the most promising prospects this season, attests to that.
"I think I am in better shape than before," said the 240-pound junior, one of four underclassmen who started up front in 2010. "I am not tired during practices and it feels good to be in shape. Coach is tough, and we like it."
The roster is full of young and talented guys, many of whom are new to the varsity. Pena and company will run with a bunch of future stars this season and hope that several of them develop into leaders of the program. To that end, the staff ran off a handful of holdovers that did not want to conform to the program's new mantra of discipline.
"Yeah, we had some kids who were on again, off again, not showing up, etc., so we had to finally make them turn in their gear," said Pena, who did not shy away from stressing that the coaches have all cracked down on laissez faire attitudes where they exist. "In order to get your kids to play for you, they have to know that your word means something. So we told them that everyone had to toe the line and when some guys didn't, we had to get them gone. That way the kids know they can trust us to do what we say we are going to do."
That sort of steady discipline will surely pay off when the season hits. The Jags scrimmage Brownsville Pace Saturday and then start the season a week later. There is no time for maybes.
"We ended spring training on a good high note, with the team wanting more, and that's a good thing," Pena noted, taking time out to blow the whistle and exhort his troops on to the next drill. "The guys want to enjoy their experience here at Economedes, they want to win, and by getting them to follow the rules, we can go a long way toward putting them in position to achieve that goal. It all starts here, with the foundation, changing the culture and making sure our enthusiasm as a staff carries over to the kids."
Pena said that his team has sacrificed, done the summer weight work, and is beginning to get used to the new system, including X's and O's changes on both sides of the football. But he insists that the main alteration has come in outlook, upstairs.
"We think it's mainly a mental game, to compete and to expect to compete well," he noted. "I had kids in my office asking what they can do to help us be successful, and that's what you want, you want people around here doing the extra work it takes, and having fun being part of a winning operation. That's what we are building here."