Under-17 Week ends, relationships just beginning

By Joe Frollo

For seven days, players from across the United States and Sweden came together in Austin, Texas, with a simple purpose: to become better football players.

Along the way, they also made friends, built relationships and discovered opportunities they never knew they had.

In today’s digital world, it’s easy for one teenager in California to chat with another in Virginia or even Stockholm.

Crossing continents and oceans are a simple task once people get the chance to know one another.

The USA Football Under-17 International Development Week ended Thursday with full-contact scrimmages at Burger Stadium. Nearly 140 athletes from 25 states represented Team USA on Red, White and Blue squads.

No scores were kept. That wasn’t the point. Like the rest of this week, Thursday’s finale was about playing hard and helping opponents up after the whistle blows.

“The practices, the games, everything was great,” said Logan McHone, a Team Red two-way lineman from Valley Christian High School in Dublin, Calif. “I learned techniques from these coaches that will help me put it all together this fall. And the friendships I made with players from the United States and Sweden are something I look to continue.”

Team Blue head coach Louie Becerra of St. Dominic Savio High School in Austin said staffs started by teaching fundamentals but quickly built individuals into groups and systems.

For the players to assimilate everything they absorbed and execute on the field is high praise for these athletes.

“I think every one of these players will take what they learned here this week back to their high schools and apply it to their game,” Becerra said. “Not just what they learned on the field but how to perform in meetings, watch film and how to be students of the game.”

American and Swedish players practiced alongside each other all week, then competed against each other in jamborees and the scrimmage.

The teams played with emotion and the passion the sport demands. But sportsmanship came naturally for athletes who knew each other as people behind the facemasks.

“This was a great experience. Everyone came together real quickly,” said Team White linebacker Paul Baclayon of Monroe Twp., N.J. “It is something we can always say we went through together. The coaches taught us so much. I can’t wait to take it back and use it in the high school season.”

THEY’LL BE BACK  Swedish running back Jonathan Gihl said competing against the Americans will help himself and his teammates improve. Better players make for a stronger game, and that is a goal for the Swedes.

“This week has been something I can’t describe,” Gihl said. “It was a long trip, and it will be a long way back, but it is well worth it. All the knowledge we got will go a long way toward what we want to do.

“This will make us stronger players. We are not that far behind the Americans. You will see us at the world championship and the European championship. We’re Sweden. We will represent our country well.”

THAT’S A WRAP  The USA Football Under-17 International Development Week was the final event in the 2012 World Football Festival. In all, about 2,000 players, coaches and officials from more than 30 states and 15 countries took part in six events in and around Austin.

Under-17 Week is about getting better for the fall

By Joe Frollo

Not every player will make the big catch, the crucial block or the touchdown-saving tackle.

But everyone can improve.

That’s the focus behind USA Football Under-17 International Development Week. More than 120 U.S. players are in Austin, Texas, to improve their football skills and get better for their high school teams this fall.

For Allen Hall of Laurel, Md., it means becoming more aggressive as a defensive back, using individual drills, 7-on-7 and team situations to play the game faster against top competition.

For Jack Carroll, a nose guard and offensive lineman from Oakton, Va., and Gonzaga College High School, that means learning new defenses and growing his football knowledge.

“This week has opened me up to new experiences,” Carroll said. “When I go to college, I’ll have to learn new schemes, new techniques. I’ve been doing some of that here already.”

The players aren’t the only ones improving themselves. The U.S. coaching staffs are sharing insights with each other and offering tools that their colleagues can take back to their own programs.

“I’ve learned some defensive back drills that I’ll incorporate into what we do,” said Jeff Ables, the head coach at Austin Bowie High School and USA Team Red. “We all run basically the same stuff, but there are wrinkles you can learn from other coaches that you can use with your team.”

Coaches and players spent Wednesday at Whitaker Fields putting final touches on their training. All that remains Thursday morning are scrimmages at Burger Stadium. Team Red and Team Blue kick off at 9 a.m., followed by Team White and Team Sweden.

“These guys are ready to go, ready to compete,” Ables said. “We are looking forward to it.”

MAKING THE MOST  Nick Johns fractured his ankle playing basketball prior to arriving at the Under-17 International Development Week. Still, the Leesburg, Va., quarterback made the trip to Austin to get what he can out of the situation.

“I’ve been watching all the drills, all the workouts,” Johns said. “I have a better grasp on how to control an offense, and I’ve seen some good drills to help me with my footwork.”

BACK AT IT  Christian Drews of Ramona, Calif., suffered a high ankle sprain during Monday’s practice. He missed all of Tuesday and Wednesday recovering before taking the field with Team Red on Thursday, much to his delight.

“I’m really, really excited,” Drews said. “It’s been rough sitting down.”

Drews’ father, Jeremy, credited the staff from St. Vincent Sports Medicine for assisting his son’s recovery.

“They spent so much time with him, working with him to get him back out there,” Jeremy Drews said. “The target goal was Thursday’s scrimmages, but to get him out there a day earlier is wonderful.”

BEHIND THE SCENES  Matt Loo of St. George, Utah, has traveled with his son, Bowman, to many football camps. He gave a thumbs up to USA Football and its events team for coordinating the Under-17 Week.

“Logistically, the way it is organized is pretty amazing,” Matt Loo said. “You’ve got 150 kids, including some from Sweden, getting from point to point without a hitch. That’s a great job.”

Players and coaches are housed at the University of Texas dorms and board busses each day for practice. Loo, a defensive line coach at Snow Canyon High School in Utah, said he knows how difficult it is getting just one team ready and loaded onto busses on time.

“The kids have been having fun because all the little things are taken care of,” Loo said. “Being able to focus on the competition, they are able to work hard and go home better players.”

THE NEXT LEVEL  Most players at the Under-17 International Development Week hope to play football at the college level. Steve Dressler of Covington, Va., said his son, Derek, has gotten a crash course on what it will be like as a college athlete.

“Their schedule has been structured much like it will be in college,” Dressler said. “Get up, breakfast, practice, lunch, study sessions, practice and more studying. If this is what they want to do, this week has shown them the way.”

FRIENDLY COMPETITION  Marcus Royster, a parent from Lake Oswego, Ore., said competition is high this week, but all of the U.S. and Swedish players feel like teammates in that they help each other out.

“You are competing against people who want to be where you are at, but this setting builds a bond that lends itself to helping everyone to improve,” said Royster, whose son Marqueese is participating. “Players have the chance to become leaders as well as improve themselves. That’s just as important.”

USA Football Under-19 National Trials conclude

By Matt Burkholder

The USA Football Under-19 National Trials concluded Sunday afternoon at Burger Stadium after four days of intense work by some of the nation’s top high school junior football players.

Sunday’s full pad scrimmage served as the finale to the hard work put in by these individuals on and off the field.

Team USA coach Jim Ferrell of Wheeling High School in suburban Chicago said he appreciates the hard work the athletes put into learning a new playbook in a matter of days.

“In a span of five days to digest that much information and be able to run a 2- minute offense is unheard of,” Ferrell said. “It’s a credit to the kids and speaks volumes.”

Quarterback Austin Henyon of Trinity Valley High School in Texas said players worked hard in their dorm rooms at night to reinforce what coaches were teaching them throughout the week.

“I used all the free time I had to study the playbook, and I had it down very quickly,” Henyon said.

Parents and players embraced the chance to network with new people and the opportunity for the players to challenge one another.

“I made some good friendships with a lot of the guys there,” Henyon said. “It was great to compete against people from all over the nation.”

The hard work will pay off in the fall as players return to their high schools. They also have the opportunity to be selected for the U.S. Under-19 National Team, which will compete in February in the fourth annual International Bowl.

Each player received a personalized evaluation from USA Football staff that includes NFL scouts as well coaches with NFL and college experience.

“This was a great experience, and I had a great time being able to tryout in order to represent the USA,” Henyon said.

Under-17 coaching staffs building teams at brisk pace

By Joe Frollo

Most high school football programs have three to four weeks of two-a-days to install their offenses and defenses.

For USA Football Under-17 International Development Week participants in Austin, Texas, players and coaches have four days to get on the same page.

Team USA White head coach Donald Davis of Calvert Hall High School in Townsend, Md., said the process is difficult but not impossible.

“We knew about the time constraints coming in,” Davis said. “It’s about making it sound but making it simple, especially for the linemen. For skill position players, you just need to put them in the right position and they will be successful.”

The three U.S. teams and Team Sweden practiced 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 to serve as a walkthrough for Tuesday afternoon’s jamboree at Burger Stadium.

Simplicity is the goal for Jeff Ables, the Team Red head coach from Austin Bowie High School. He came in with some ideas of what he wanted to do but has changed much of it to fit the personnel.

“Some of these quarterbacks have never taken a snap under center,” Ables said. “They all do different things back in their programs. We will work to the players’ strengths, keep it simple and keep it fun.”

Team White quarterback Kyle Gallagher said he is running basically the same offense as back home in Endwell, N.Y. The most difficult aspect has been translating the terminology.

Terms can mean one thing at Maine-Endwell High School and something completely different in Austin. He’s slowly getting it though and put in some extra study time before the jamboree to be ready.

“It all seems a little bit rushed at first, but after a couple of plays we get used to it,” Gallagher said. “I just do what the coaches tell me, and they will correct me if I need help.”

Studying the playbook after practice has been the key to success for Michael Guerrido of Deltona, Fla. The University High School free safety spends as much time going over his notes as he does working on the field.

“There have been a few long nights re-reading plays and asking my teammates how we do things,” Guerrido said. “It’s getting to the point where it will start to come naturally.”

With rosters around 40 players each, some U-17 players are being asked to play both sides of the ball. Call that an honors class when it comes to study sessions. Both Connor Humphreys of Gresham, Ore., and Brannon Barry of St. Charles, Ill., are learning offensive and defensive schemes.

Humphreys is a left tackle and defensive end for Team White. Barry is a wide receiver and defensive back for Team Red.

“If you are coachable, you can pick up pretty quickly what it is the coaches are telling you to do,” Humphreys said. “Every coach may have different words or different techniques, but in the end it’s all the same.”

Or as Barry put it: “Football is football. There are different terms and different coverages, but the coaches expect us to work hard then go to the dorms to study. It’s all about repetition – on the field and in your head.”

ATTENTION PARENTS  Parents and fans attending the Under-17 games Thursday morning at Burger Stadium are reminded that Texas law prohibits anyone being on the playing field or track surrounding the playing surface who is not involved in the competition.

Spectators are required to sit in the stands. USA Football thanks you for your cooperation.

NO DOWN TIME  Players and coaches hold meetings at the University of Texas as well as on the playing field. Derik Calhoon of El Cerrito High School in Richmond, Calif., said he’s not shy about asking a coach a question – whether it is part of the schedule, at a meal or during a random meeting on campus.

“The coaching has been great,” said Calhoon, an outside linebacker and free safety for Team Red. “You have to be focused and always listening. The coaches may be telling someone else exactly what you are confused about.

“For defense at least, the coaches aren’t too scripted. They are letting us play and trusting us to be in the right place.”

LONG WAY FROM HOME   Glenn Cummings traveled more than 2,000 miles with two players from Colchester, Vt., to take part in Under-17 International Development Week. Grant Cummings is a running back for Team Blue, and Nick Bacon is a defensive end on Team Red.

Cummings also is president of Northern Vermont Youth Football, whose coaches are certified by USA Football’s online education.

“We came down to get my son and Nick exposure to college-level coaching and a look at what football is like outside the state of Vermont,” Glenn Cummings said. “It’s a great opportunity for players to embrace the whole week. We will try to come again and to try out for the Under-19 National Team when Grant is ready.”

NEVER GIVE UP  Davis ended Tuesday morning’s practice with a story for his squad about determination. The White Team coaches played basketball Monday and as Davis saw a loose ball roll away in the backcourt, his mind wanted to go after it but his body just wouldn’t cooperate.

This is a lesson that age catches up to everyone. But for these U-17 players, their bodies are in prime shape, so it’s often their mental toughness that is the first to wane.

“When I was younger, there would have been no hesitation as I got after that ball,” Davis said. “That’s what it should be like for you guys now. You’ve got to want it. You’ve got to go after it. And you’ve got to get it.”

SHAKE THE RUST OFF  The Under-17 jamboree Tuesday afternoon was a chance for players to put some of what they learned into use during full-contact scrimmages. For  nose guard Miguel Rodriguez of Livingston (Texas) High School, that meant challenging himself against often bigger,  heavier offensive linemen.

“It feels great,” said Rodriguez a 5-foot-5, 175-pound fireplug with a motor that has impressed coaches. “I’m blessed to have the opportunity to play against the best in this country and Sweden. There is such a good level of football being played here. I can’t wait to get back to Livingston and share as much as I can with my teammates what I have learned.”

U-17 joint sessions benefit both sides

By Joe Frollo

As shoulder pads cracked Monday at Whitaker Fields in Austin, Texas, coaches called out instructions to their players.

“Get lower,” they yelled. “Use your hands, explode out, fill your lanes.”

The difference during USA Football Under-17 International Development Week is that the coaching isn’t always in English.

About 40 players from Sweden have been practicing alongside the nearly 120 American boys, running the same drills, catching the same passes and learning the same lessons – sometimes from coaches with a strong Texas drawl, other times in their native language.

The message is the same, though: Use every opportunity and absorb every word this week to make yourself a better player.

“It’s great,” said Erik Bergstrom, a Swedish linebacker. “I’m picking up a lot of little things, the finer points of the sport. It’s really helping me improve.”

Bergstrom has been playing football for just 18 months since making the switch from swimming and track. He said he is learning from both the U.S. coaches and the players.

He watches American players move naturally within the game. He wants to become so familiar with football that his instincts take over within the flow of competition.

“I like the physicality of the game,” Bergstrom said. “I still need to think about what I am doing, but I am getting better at it every day.”

Natural instincts and experience are what separate American players from  their Swedish counterparts, said Team USA Blue head coach Louie Becerra of St. Dominic Savio in Austin, Texas.

The Swedes are learning, though, and they don’t usually have to be told something twice.

“They are so observant, like sponges out there,” Becerra said. “They watch everything – even the coaches. There is a Swede videotaping practices, and one time when I pulled a U.S. player over for one-on-one instruction, the videographer turned to focus on us to see what I was saying to the player and how I said it. They really want to learn.”

That enthusiasm is contagious, said quarterback Tucker Bierne of Miami Christopher Columbus High School.

U.S. players are competing on the field against the Swedes but also taking on mentorship roles.

During one drill, Bierne helped a Swedish quarterback who didn’t understand what a coach was telling him.

“He listened to what I was saying just like it was a coach,” Bierne said. “There was no ego, just desire to get better. Everyone here shares a love for this sport, and that is so obvious when you practice alongside the Swedish players. They are just like us in that they just want to get better.”

***

SECOND TIME AROUND  Bierne also took part in the 2011 Under-15 International Development Week in Canton, Ohio. His father, David, said Tucker still keeps in touch with players from that event, including some players and coaches who are here in Austin.

“The cultural exchange is the best part of this week,” David Bierne said. “Tucker has made friends with people from another country that he will have for life. The world is so small these days with the Internet. You have to take advantage of this kind of opportunity.”

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PAINFUL LESSON  U.S. linebacker Christian Drews of Ramona (Calif.) High School missed Monday’s practice with a high ankle sprain. Sitting on the sideline with ice on his ankle was difficult for the American teenager, but it’s a lesson his father, Jeremy, hopes he can learn from it.

“He’s like everyone else in that he wants to get out there and compete,” Jeremy Drews said. “He’s also like everyone else in that at times he thinks he’s invincible. It’s better that this happened here than during the season.”

Christian Drews hopes to be ready by Thursday’s games at Burger Stadium.