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Danbury football — Part 2: How to practice with 11 players

Mark Hazelwood • Oct 29, 2010 at 1:36 AM

It all seemed so normal.

At a recent practice, Danbury coach Tim Heffernan ran his team through individual drills, offered encouragement and, when necessary, raised his voice to make a point.

Linemen ran into the tackling sled at each whistle and receivers ran crisp routes while taking passes from the quarterback.

Then the Danbury offensive unit lined up for a play and the garbage cans came out.

With only 11 healthy players in uniform heading into Friday's season finale, they need to practice against something. That something is five Rubbermaid garbage cans.

In the most difficult season in the football team's history, the ability to simulate live game speed in practice is one of many factors in the Lakers' struggle to be competitive on the field.

Extreme measures

Without 22 players to have 11 versus 11 in practice, improvising isn't an option.

It's a requirement.

"Those garbage cans shift around," Heffernan said. "That is so our linemen know that in certain situations they will face different line shifts."

Fundamentals are key.

"With low numbers, you can still teach footwork, stance alignment and technique," he said.

"You can still educate players on the game and what your expectations are with the weight room and game film. The only thing we really lack is that game speed in practice. We try to emulate that in small drills."

Dealing with anywhere from 11-15 players in practice for 10 weeks, Heffernan said the team cannot do certain drills because the team can't risk an injury. In the end, it means focusing on individual improvement while learning the playbook, with hopes that it all will carry over to Friday nights and beyond.

"It's all about football, and none of it's about football," Heffernan said. "It's a strange paradox. A lot of times I think we fool ourselves in life if we tell our kids, 'Hey, if you work hard, it will all be OK.'

"Well, sometimes you lose, and lose badly. Sometimes you work as hard as you can, but you still lose. That is a very valuable lesson. Maybe somewhere down the road they'll be in a situation where people will want to quit or walk away. But one of them will stand up and say, 'No, that's not what we do. We don't quit and we work as hard as we can to finish the job, no matter the outcome.' Winning is important, but lessons can be learned from losing. A lot of times, that's what life is about."

Reality hits

Heffernan, 35, experienced one of his toughest days on the job Aug. 29 before a Monday practice.

"It was horrible," Heffernan said. "They were very upset, specifically the kids who were injured."

After a 42-20 loss to Upper Scioto Valley in the season opener, the Lakers lost two players to concussion-like symptoms and two others to wrist and back injuries. With just 12 players to work with in a best-case scenario, the decision was made to cancel the Week 2 game at North Baltimore.

Heffernan had to deliver the news to his team.

"Those injured kids felt like they were letting everyone down," he said. "And the worst part about that is we took a beating for it. We were called cowards. We were called sissies."

North Baltimore coach Chip Hollenback took exception to the Lakers canceling the game in comments made to the Findlay Courier during the week.

"Either you play the season or you don't play the season," Hollenback said. "The Tigers of North Baltimore never quit. They never weasel out on somebody; they always show up to play and they play all four quarters."

Some questioned why the Lakers have been able to play several other games with 11-13 players, but chose to cancel the game with North Baltimore.

"Any decision you make is based on safety of the kids," Danbury superintendent Dan Parent said. "Our 11 kids out there right now -- we have three in casts. That was a situation where they got casted up and cleared to play, but when you talk concussions and the long-term effects that goes with it, that is not something you mess around with."

While the decision to canceled the game upset and bothered him, junior quarterback Lucas Kennedy said he understood why.

"Going in there with 12 players probably wouldn't have been a smart decision," Kennedy said. "It wasn't about just one game, we had to make it through the whole season.

"If someone else would have gotten hurt, we would have been faced with shutting down the season and nearly a century of tradition would have been over."

The cancellation also made for a difficult week of practice as critics chimed in and speculation swirled about the future of the season -- and program.

"There was all sorts of doubt suddenly creeping in," Heffernan said. "We always talk about that little voice in your head that says you can't do it. We talked all week about fighting that voice and telling them they are a team of destiny that was picked to do something special this year."

Long overdue

Kennedy hadn't experienced a win on the football field since fifth grade.

Team captain and senior lineman Hunter Stephens enjoyed just two wins in junior high.

They both experienced the thrill of victory when the Lakers rallied after the canceled game with a matchup against St. Wendelin, a school in a similar situation as the Lakers.

Led by Kennedy, the Lakers scored a 33-20 win, reaching one of the team's goals at the start of the year: break a 14-game home losing streak dating back to the 2007 season opener.

"The whole experience was awesome," Stephens said. "All the attention we got from everyone in and out of school, it was just great to see everything come together."

A different vibe was noticeable around school after the win.

"The Monday after we won, I was approached by four kids at this school who suddenly wanted to play football," Heffernan said. "Unfortunately ... that's not really the way we want to run it. We want kids that are coming in January through August putting the work in. ...But it goes to show it can (all) change by winning."

Players said they appreciated the positive attention the team enjoyed after the win and hope wins will inspire underclassmen to keep the football program going.

"We have to win, that's pretty much it," Stephens said. "The more wins, the more other kids will want to get involved."

The negative vibe returned once the team lost a couple of games, but Kennedy said it won't affect his performance and motivation.

"It'd be nice to have everyone in the community supporting us," he said. "It'd be nice to get everyone believing in the program."

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