July 30, 2014
A line of North Texas soccer players, standing on a practice field in the summer swelter of a July afternoon, stirs slightly at strength coach David Trevino's ten-second warning call.
Drenched in sweat, faces red, hair hanging limp, hands on hips or interlocked overhead or clutching water bottles, they move as little as possible in these moments between drills. Several bend at the waist and grab the hem of their shorts in a failed effort to conserve energy.
"Come on, stand up," one of the veterans says, but her voice belies her own fatigue.
"Breathe," says Trevino, standing 20 yards downfield. Behind the line, athletic trainer Andrea Miller constantly scans for signs of an athlete in distress, and pulls aside one student showing indications of overheating.
"Five!" Trevino calls.
Five seconds until the start of the next run. The student-athletes straighten, address the start line, wait for the whistle. Trevino sends them on their way and begins a loud, clear count, walking behind the group as it passes and begins to spread out. Everyone must complete the run - varying from 60 to 85 yards depending on level of fitness - in 15 seconds. Fifteen seconds, or it's a miss. Fifteen seconds down. Fifteen second back.
This time, everyone makes it. Again, they fall into a tableau of pain. A few seconds respite. A drink of water and a splash on the back of the neck. Until the next call comes...
Unlikely as it may sound, this is one of the perks of Conference USA.
North Texas' entry into Conference USA has its obvious benefits, from more bowl tie-ins to increased television exposure to a higher level of competition. But the end result of those added assets has also lead to very tangible advantages to sports like soccer and volleyball.
The increased revenue provides, among other things, flexibility to help fund scholarships to cover the cost of summer school, and attending summer school allows student-athletes to participate in organized strength and conditioning drills on campus. Although team coaches are not allowed to participate, the training and strength and conditioning staffs supervise the workouts. Football and basketball have had offseason workouts for some time, but it's a more recent addition to the soccer and volleyball teams. And it's paying off.
"I can send them what I want them to do," head strength coach Chris Seroka said. "But I played in college, too, and I know if student-athletes do 50 percent of those workouts, you're lucky. Having them here for four or five weeks, you know exactly what they're doing."
That added month of conditioning is especially important for the soccer and volleyball teams who report for camp in early August and begin play in late August.
"The fact that they can come in in July and work with coach Trevino is huge for us," soccer coach John Hedlund said. "When we get them, we have a base for their fitness. Most of the players will have passed our conditioning test in July. We don't have much time in August for a lot of conditioning because we're putting the team together, getting the chemistry right, and putting the system in place."
The emphasis of July training varies with the sport.
"Volleyball is such an explosive, one-move, quick-step sport, so we're teaching them how to do that," Seroka said.
"They're able to work on small technical stuff as a group, and work on keeping their competitive edge," Mean Green assistant volleyball coach Susan Halverson explained. "They'll do individuals in the morning, skill-specific stuff, and then in the afternoon they'll play for a couple of hours where they play five sets."
For soccer, it's all about building endurance.
"Soccer is so based on conditioning," Hedlund said. "You're running for 90 minutes. So having the kids in here in July is really huge for us.
"I think it helped us a great deal last year because we were able to make a strong run into the conference tournament late in the year. I could tell in those Sunday games, the second game of the week, that their fitness was better than the previous year."
This year, the importance of the summer conditioning program is magnified by the number of newcomers to the soccer and volleyball squads, which will each go to camp with 10 freshmen.
"For the freshmen, this is all new to them," Hedlund said. "They have no idea what they're getting involved in. They don't do this kind of conditioning in club ball or high school. It's great have the veterans pushing and encouraging them, because it's kind of a shock to them now."
"It's big to start to get them acclimated to they college life for these four or five weeks with their teammates," Seroka said.
Just as important as the conditioning is building relationships. With so many new players added to the rosters, developing and establishing leaders is key.
"We want the culture to come from within the team, so that it's not the coaches or the strength coaches telling them what to do," Halverson said. "We want the upper classmen to provice guidance to the freshmen, to teach them what the expectations are."
"The best team building is just being around each other," Seroka said. "They're together for several hours every day. I think the biggest thing is the camraderie of the team getting to know each other and getting comfortable with each other."
All of which sounds great when you're being recruited, or during the season when you're winning games and competing for championships. But on a miserable afternoon in July, it can a little tougher to see the ultimate goal through the perspiration dripping in your eyes and the heat haze shimmering the horizon.
That, everyone agrees, is what makes this time so vital.
"I tell every student-athlete, 'Every one of you is going question whether you should be here or not in your freshman year. Do I really want to do this, am I built for this,' " Seroka said. "The answer is yes. You just have to suck it up during the tough times, which are usually early on when you're head is swimming and you're having everything thrown at you academically, athletically, socially, you're in a new town, maybe hours and hours away from family. That's where that galvanizing with your team really comes into play.