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PRINCETON — “Lasagna,” the player said.
Looking up from the old flat tire he’d been pushing across the grass, the Princeton High football player turned to answer Bulldogs head coach Travis Gaster and revealed a sweat-drenched red T-shirt and blue Under Armour shorts. With the June heat taking its toll on the backs of three dozen or so Bulldog players, exhaustion was setting in at summer workouts off Dr. Donnie H. Jones Blvd.
So, naturally, while some laid down in between sets and other put their hands on their hips and squinted at the sky, the fifth-year head coach joked with his players about what they’d eaten the night before.
Upon hearing of the Italian cuisine his player ate, Gaster smiled and laughed. The coach pushed him to finish the third set of tire pushes, because, with minutes to go until the workout ended, that food left plenty “in the tank.”
Two months from now, Gaster might not have the luxury of time to talk dinner dishes with his players during team activities. By then, the Bulldogs will have set their sights upon the season opener at Pamlico County, and will be too busy fine-tuning plays and making last-minute adjustments to wonder about meals at the dinner table.
But now, in late June preseason workouts, the program coming off an undefeated record in 1-A Carolina Conference play last season has a different set of focuses on top of just X’s and O’s. While those priorities include getting into playing shape and learning plays, sometimes they can diverge from football.
“You gain camaraderie during the summer time,” Gaster said. “We teach skills, of course, and we get the basic fundamentals down of what we’re trying to accomplish, so that when we start in August, everything is not brand new to them.”
More than anything, Gaster said his team bonds — from hard work, sweat and yes, even talk of lasagna — during the summer months, when workouts are optional. That’s evident in the smiles and “atta boys” shared, even when the players are tired.
Gaster said showing up now lets coaches and fellow players know who is committed to the upcoming season, so that when team activities turn more serious over the next eight weeks, they can look at each other and remember the hard work and experience they’ve already shared as a group.
Players see the same value of workouts that Gaster does.
“The more we practice, the more ready we’ll be for that first game and that first contact,” rising senior safety/ wide receiver Scott Vollgrebe said. “It’s always best to start in the spring when it’s not even football season. It’s always good to start early.”
With plenty of hot days left before football season is back, the Princeton program is working on stripping the game down to its fundamentals and installing plays right now. On the field, players are hitting practice dummies, working on footwork and ball control and running some plays to get guards accustomed to looking for linebackers on the second level and throwing blocks that open holes for the running backs.
Three times a week, the Bulldogs head out to the field at 8:30 a.m. for non-contact drills followed by time spent in the weight room lifting, then out on the grass outside the gym flipping monster truck tires and pushing regular-sized ones.
By October, the details of those summer workouts and drills will have faded. But that doesn’t make what happens during these summer months any less important to those later months of game, senior offensive tackle and defensive lineman Eric Chavez said.
“With all these coaches they’re helping us get our bodies right, get our minds right for this season,” Chavez said. “They’re helping us better ourselves and our play.”
In 2019, the Bulldogs will follow a historically great season when they amassed a 9-1 record, including a perfect 5-0 mark in the conference — the best record in recent school history. By the end of the summer, the team hopes to be ready to build on that success by repeating as conference champions and advancing beyond the North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoffs first round, where its season ended in 2018.
“Hopefully we can put down another solid layer here and build a program that our community can be really proud of,” Gaster said.
But for now, while the sun is still hot and August is still weeks away, there’s still time for talk of lasagna in between the hard work it takes to prepare for the physicality of Friday nights.