A-K Valley’s new coaches ‘hyped’ during opening day of football practice

Monday, August 13, 2018 | 10:00 PM

The smell of the grass at Riverside Park awakened Todd Massack’s football senses Monday morning.

Riverview’s coach brought his team out for a bright-and-early 8 a.m. practice on the first day of training camp, the first day of padded, full-contact practices, and he could feel the excitement despite the hour.

Teams spent much of the summer working out in the weight room, engaging in non-mandatory workouts and playing seven-on-seven games, and they got on the field last week during the PIAA’s mandatory heat acclimatization. Still, Massack said, the first day of camp brings special meaning.

“I told them, it’s that wet August grass — there’s nothing like that smell,” Massack said. “I don’t know what it was, but it just gets you fired up. It’s different. They want to get out of the weight room, they want to put pads on, they want to start bumping a little bit.”

Monday represented the unofficial beginning of football season for 13 schools in the Alle-Kiski Valley: Apollo-Ridge, Burrell, Deer Lakes, Fox Chapel, Freeport, Highlands, Kiski Area, Knoch, Leechburg, Plum, Riverview, Springdale and Valley.

Three schools opened two-a-days under the gaze of a new coach: Massack at Riverview, Tim Burk at Deer Lakes and Shawn Liotta at Burrell.

Massack is beginning the first year of his second tenure as Riverview’s coach, but at this point he’s more than a familiar face around Riverside Park. He’s been involved with Riverview’s program in some form or fashion since 2005.

“Coach Massack, he brought so much enthusiasm into the first day of camp to get everyone hyped up,” Riverview senior Devon Binz said. “Everyone’s going into it ready to go and ready to hit. I think it was a good first practice.

“He’s like family to us, so it’s great having him as a head coach.”

Burk became Deer Lakes’ coach late last month after nearly a decade as an assistant at his alma mater. In his first coaching job, Burk is learning the ins and outs of running camp — from scheduling time during practice, to arranging the menu for the team lunch.

And although thunderstorms caused the Lancers to spend the early portion of their afternoon practice indoors in classroom sessions and the gym, Burk rolled with the punches — “one thing you can’t control is the weather,” he said.

While Burk was hired in late summer, he helped run Deer Lakes’ workouts since late spring, when former coach Steve Sciullo resigned to take a full-time staffing position at Hampton.

“Our biggest thing is we’re looking for the effort,” he said. “We’re looking for the kids who are willing to learn. The intensity. Things of that nature. We can really groom them to be what we want to fit our system. If they’re not going to put the effort, then for us, they’re not going to step on the football field. We demand it from them.”

That, too, distinguished the first day of camp for Liotta at Burrell. The former Albert Gallatin coach led his team through seven on sevens for much of the summer, but Monday’s first day allowed for some hitting.

“As the summer goes along, it kind of drags a little bit, and you really look forward to getting out there the first day in full pads,” Liotta said. “To kind of see your whole team out there kind of start to take shape is exciting. The first day of camps in Western Pennsylvania high school football, everybody’s got championship dreams, everybody’s excited. It really is a special time.”

A former Arena Football League coach, Liotta emphasizes tempo at his practices.

“It takes a couple minutes to jump into gear and get it going, but once you start getting the tempo down, it starts to go by quick,” senior Austin Mele said. “The energy around everyone is just higher. With the pads, you can finally hit instead of having guys holding a pad to hit. You’re actually allowed to come up and hit someone. Everybody’s been on their toes for hitting.”

Liotta was hired in mid-April, giving Burrell’s players roughly four months to learn his coaching styles and philosophies. And while Monday was technically the first day for Massack and Burk, their players knew plenty about them given their prior status as assistants.

“He already had a pretty huge role in our team, so he kind of just fit right in,” Deer Lakes senior Jared Colton said. “It’s pretty standard. We’re just going to keep going about our business with him.”

Monday was the biggest day in the football calendar so far, but bigger dates loom in the next few weeks. Saturday brings the first scrimmage date. Teams then can play a second scrimmage or a “Week Zero” game Aug. 24, and Week 1 will begin Aug. 31.

“It’s been a great summer,” Massack said. “The kids have a great attitude, they’re working hard — this may be the best summer I’ve been associated with. The kids, they’ve attended, they’ve worked hard, they’ve got a great attitude, and they want to do well.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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