Today is a big day. Big Monday. It’s the first day of practice for MSHSL football, volleyball, cross-country, soccer, girls swimming and girls tennis as the 2016-17 year begins.
Everything is new and optimism is everywhere. All across Minnesota, teams are gathering for the first meetings and opening drills as preparation begins for the new season. How much fun is this?
Technically, practices could begin at one second after midnight. And a few teams didn’t waste that one second. One of them was the football team from White Bear Lake High School, which took the field as the clock turned from Sunday night into Monday morning. And what a scene: there was a student section in the stands, 30 cheerleaders in fine midseason form and about as much enthusiasm as you would expect on Day One.
The football players gathered inside the school a little after 9 p.m. to watch a suitable high school football movie, “When the Game Stands Tall.” They were raring to go well before midnight. They were strapped into their black helmets and ready to roll when one of the assistant coaches said, “We’ve got 25 minutes.” To which a player responded, “So we just wait?” Yes, we just wait.
When it was finally time to hit the field, the Bears tore through a large paper sign created and held by the cheerleaders. It read, “Midnight Madness 2016. This Is Our Time.”
The Bears were on the field for nearly an hour. They did position-specific drills and played some seven-on-seven. The offensive players wore white shirts and the defense wore black.
The Bears went 2-7 last season, losing to eventual Class 6A state champion Osseo 48-21 in their postseason opener.
Head coach Ryan Bartlett is a rare combination: A young age coupled with experience. His first job as an assistant coach came when he was a sophomore in college and coaching at Irondale High School, his alma mater. He became the head coach at Armstrong when he was only 25. He’s now 32 and beginning his eighth year as a head coach, having been at White Bear Lake since 2012.
Bartlett (pictured) has learned a few things along the way.
“I think every year things come up that you don’t always plan for,” he said. “The longer you go, you kind of anticipate things more. The other part of it is that you kind of expect the unexpected. When you’re younger, you think, ‘Holy crap, what do I do?’ Something will come up this week that we didn’t expect.”
Expectations are high for the Bears this fall, based on experience gained a year ago. Six sophomores were in the starting lineup in 2015 – “that’s too many,” Bartlett said -- and lots of other youngsters saw action. But the flip side of that equation is that this year’s team has a bundle of experienced athletes. Another positive sign: There are nearly 200 kids playing football in grades nine through 12 at White Bear Lake.
“Our numbers are really good,” Bartlett said. “We have a lot of experience on offense at the skill spots and a couple linemen. Most of our juniors have played. We have a lot of guys who have played a lot.”
The preseason period will focus on hard work during practices, but the Bears also will have fun. On Friday the players will present impersonations of the coaching staff, which is always a hoot.
“They rehearse and they really do a good job with that,” Bartlett said. “It’s probably the funniest thing we do all year.”
During the second week of practice the players will go bowling as a team, which also sounds like more fun than a barrel of monkeys.
Like every other fall sports team in our state, the Bears are ready to go. There’s something special about the first official practice of a season, and Monday morning’s proceedings at White Bear Lake was a grand way to kick off the 2016-17 year.
“We’re excited,” Bartlett said.
Indeed we are. For all our teams, all over Minnesota.
Good luck, everybody.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 1
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 62