Strength and conditioning coaches, trainers bolster Westmoreland County football programs

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Saturday, September 3, 2022 | 4:46 PM


High school football teams used to use an honor system in the summer months for offseason training.

Players promised to work out on their own. Coaches hoped they did.

“The offseason dictates everything,” Hempfield coach Mike Brown said. “I mean, kids play other sports, and that’s fine. But training is so important in the summer.”

Years ago, there weren’t public gyms and there certainly wasn’t a concentrated emphasis on strength and conditioning like there is today. Not to the current degree.

More WPIAL programs are hiring strength coaches to work with and guide players in the summer and during training camp. Some even hang around for the duration of the season.

“We’re so much farther along than we were in the past as far as conditioning goes,” Greensburg Central Catholic coach Marko Thomas said. “It’s unreal how much our guys have done already.”

Not only does the lifting, jumping and speed-training make gassers at training camp less daunting, but the drills also help get players in shape for the season.

“There was strength and conditioning 30 years ago,” said Hempfield assistant coach and former Jeannette head coach Ray Reitz. “It was a little different, but we worked hard. Our kids lifted weights in (former Jeannette coach) Roy Hall’s garage.”

One size not for all

While lifting the most weight still counts for alpha points in the team room, being able to run fast and jump high sets apart the Friday night studs from the duds.

“You look at the college level, and you can tell which programs invest money in strength and conditioning programs and which ones don’t,” said Rocco Yauger, who runs Yauger Sports Performance out of Greensburg and Apollo. “You have your usual lifts: squat, bench and dead-lift. But what you’re seeing now is position-specific training. Injury protection is the No. 1 thing.”

Yauger, a Penn-Trafford graduate and former assistant coach at Robert Morris and Clarion, his college alma mater, said players can’t be trained a singular way.

The cookie-cutter, blanket method of “everyone does this so many times” is not ideal.

“For instance, you might have a kid cut 45 degrees 50 times in a game,” said Yauger, who also has worked with the Franklin Regional, Penn-Trafford and Robert Morris lacrosse teams. “You want to train him to do that. You want him to be ready to do that.”

Dr. Zach Guiser, who owns and operates GT Performance in Greensburg, said conditioning is all over the map when it comes to application.

“Strength and conditioning is a relatively unregulated field, so there are large differences program to program.” said Guiser, who works with the Southmoreland football team. “There’s actually zero regulation at the high school level, so the differences are vast. “

With the honor system long a thing of the past at most schools, coaches have other ways to track results.

Thomas used pencil and paper during a pre-camp lifting session, charting his players’ weight-lifting results one by one.

Yauger said it was done a little differently at Robert Morris.

“We had a GPS on players,” he said. “If they ran five miles at practice, you knew it. That might have been broken up in 300 or 500 yards at a time, or maybe a 50-yard sprint here and there.”

Sport-specific training has grown immensely in recent years, which goes hand-in-hand with the opening of local training outfits.

“There has been a switch from programming around body-part splits, to programming around movement patterns,” Guiser said. “Prioritizing conditioning protocols that represent the energy systems demanded in the actual sport, and prioritizing movement quality over pure load.”

Sound simple enough.

Way of life

A number of former local standouts have turned strength training into their livelihood.

Among them is Tyler Zimmer, a former Penn-Trafford and Seton Hill standout who is on staff at Hempfield this season.

“I did my pro day training with FSQ (Sports Training),” Zimmer said. “My body fell apart when I was at Seton Hill. I couldn’t even do a pull-up. Watching Timmy (Cortazzo), I knew I wanted to be on that side of the fence.”

FSQ and Cortazzo, another former Penn-Trafford star who played at Toledo, are the pace-setters for the training space, at least locally.

Cortazzo works with numerous athletes from Penn-Trafford and surrounding programs, many of whom have gone on to Division I college programs and beyond.

He is working this season with Latrobe.

“I fell in love with training because I saw how far it took me in my playing career,” Cortazzo said. “My dad was my strength and conditioning coach my entire life. I started on the varsity team at Penn-Trafford as a sophomore weighing 140 pounds, and I ran for my life so these big guys couldn’t hit me.

“I graduated weighing 190 and was a lot faster and stronger, and that helped me get to the next level and prepared for college. My dad was ahead of his time with training. He put a huge focus on running fast and becoming a more efficient mover and becoming a better overall athlete. My goal has always been to pass down my knowledge and experience to every athlete that I work with. It’s important that all athletes have access to information on how they can improve. I also think that for all those who dream about playing at the next level, you can achieve that through training the right way.”

The fast lane

Cortazzo, who coached for a short stint at Ohio State, said changes in the catch-me-if-you-can game are vast since his playing days.

Most, he said, have been for the best.

“More coaches are tapping into the real science behind the training and not just randomly putting together difficult workouts,” he said. “There has been more emphasis put on how well athletes move rather than just how much weight someone can lift.”

But not all athletes are built for the training, the same way all are not made for the spotlight and Division I offers.

“I will say that my time playing at Toledo and coaching at Ohio State gave me some pretty cool stories about some absolute freaks of nature that were there,” Cortazzo said. “We’ve had quite a few come through the doors at FSQ, as well. I like to label some of these guys as Ferraris compared to the rest of the world being Honda Accords.”

Some “Ferraris” Cortazzo has been around or worked with: Zeke Elliot, Joey Bosa, Michael Thomas, Terrelle Pryor, and Skyy Moore — “To name a few,” Cortazzo said. “Some of these athletes are just genetically different. How they look, how they move, how powerful they are. Definitely makes our jobs easier as coaches.”

Training athletes with raw skill and talent, the area experts say, is recognizing what aspect needs work.

Zimmer said that, during the season, the training is like taking care of a car. Change the oil, rotate the tires, five-point inspection, “Just to make sure everything is running right,” Zimmer said.

Jon LoChiatto, a Norwin alum out of National Speed and Strength Academy in Irwin, trains the Norwin football team and a number of local athletes.

“(Strength training) has been absolutely crucial for us,” Norwin senior tight end Noah Vogel said. “He really brings a head-down-grind-type of attitude, which is what we need.

“Our lifts are gnarly, but I like how every block has a different focus like isometrics or a tempo. Speed training is great, too. We’ll do sprint work, change of direction and just about everything else in plyometrics.”

Health above all else

Zimmer said injury prevention is the linchpin of any training regimen.

After all, many teams know they are one injury away from disaster.

How many coaches from the 1980s and 90s worried about the ill-effects of unsupervised weight training? The damage it could have been doing to incoming players?

Strength coaches bring a watchful eye, often with a case-by-case perspective.

“It’s about rest ratios — sprint, rest, sprint, rest,” Zimmer said. “It’s like what happens in a game. I think we all work on movement patterns, but there are certain regressions and progressions to it.”

Nutrition, Zimmer said, is another key to the training process.

“If you do all this lifting and running, and then you don’t eat right, you wasted it all,” he said. “You need plenty of sleep, water, proteins and fats.”

Too much strength work, like too much of anything, can be disruptive to the body. Rest time for the overworked muscles and joints is a necessity.

“You want the kids to come back the next day healthy,” Jeannette coach Tom Paulone said. “You don’t want them pushing tires 100 yards Monday and lifting hard Tuesday. Recovery time is important.”

Paulone hired Christian Rusnock of Rusnock Sports Performance & Fitness in Greensburg to work as his team’s strength coach.

“I’m big on what Chip Kelly says about training,” Paulone said. “It’s like an Olympic sprinter. You want quality over quantity.”

With that being said, Paulone plans to go through pregame routines Wednesdays after tough practices Mondays and Tuesdays during the season.

In the past, Mondays were often slow days where film sessions took top billing.

“You need that recovery at the right times,” Paulone said.

Boxed in

Who knew a box would become such a pivotal device in the conditioning game?

Plyometrics, a speed- and force-building exercise, uses jumps to build muscle.

Last year, Penn-Trafford standout running back Cade Yacamelli, now a freshman at Wisconsin, turned heads with an incredible 41.3-inch vertical jump. He looked like he had been pulled upward by wires — straight up, straight down — a true display of his athleticism.

“The thing about the next level is, everybody’s fast,” Greensburg Central Catholic senior linebacker Ryan Kimmel said. “I work on getting faster. We do a lot of of box and skater jumps.”

Other methods have emerged, some that cause accomplished trainers to clutch their pearls.

Proper knowledge of training is just as important as the training itself.

“I have seen way too many off-the-wall training methods,” Cortazzo said. “Look on social media and you can find thousands of ridiculous things. Squatting with heavy weight on top of a bosu ball is silly and not very smart. If the risk outweighs the reward, it’s probably pretty dumb to incorporate it into your training.

“It’s scary knowing that there are parents and kids out there who will see these crazy videos and think that’s what they have to do to improve. There are also way too many ridiculous myths out there involving training and nutrition. It’s important for both parents and athletes to do their research in the right places. Ask real questions and let the legit, qualified professionals help to the best of their ability.”

Guiser also has his own go-to drills.

“It’s really dependent on the context of the situation,” he said. “I’m big on evaluations and making sure the interventions selected match the desired outputs in the setting of each individual’s unique history. From a strength training standpoint, we want to make sure we’re hitting each of the primary movement patterns: some sort of squat, hinge, press and row. From a speed development standpoint, we want to do things that teach athletes how to put horizontal force into the ground. Sled sprints, power skips for distance, single leg broad jumps, etc.”

Forcing athletes to do drills they can’t completely handle is counterintuitive.

“You want to make sure you’re driving up the intensity to make sure that they are challenging their 100% threshold to elicit the adaptation that we want,” Guiser said.

Show and tell

Strength and conditioning has become a reality show for some players, particularly those who post videos of themselves working out on social media.

Imagine Russ Grimm taking to Tik Tok to show off a deadlift to beat all deadlifts.

“Not everyone does it, but sometimes it’s fun to show a highlight,” Kimmel said. “I posted a video of me and my boy Samir (Crosby) running some routes. It’s not always lifting videos. I don’t like to post too much. I’m not a look-at-me guy.”

Same page

Strength-specific coaches have their own itineraries and, at times, can butt heads with head coaches.

“You might have a coach who wants to run gassers at the end of practice,” Yauger said. “But how many guys are running the full 53 yards like that in a game? We try to cut that to shorter sprints, but a lot of them. It’s still a lot, but it’s shorter bursts, like in a game.”

And there are rests in between, which also can replicate game situations.

“You have to work together with the head coach to make it work,” Yauger said. “With that being said, it’s still his team and his call.”

Cortazzo said he has felt push-back from old-school coaches who still believe brute strength rules the day.

Some coaches are like resistance bands.

“There are still plenty of coaches who refuse to adapt to what training for athletes should be,” he said. “Training for athletes needs to be solely focused on improving their performance and health in regards to their sport. We all need to be chasing peak performance and athleticism.

“Lifting heavier weight and how you look in the mirror will be two great byproducts if you train the right way and take care of your body.”

Hempfield’s Brown put the strength and conditioning keys in Zimmer’s hand and said, let it ride.

“Ty knows what he is doing and I don’t get in his way,” Brown said. “If he comes to me and says, ‘Can I do this?’ I am going to say yes.”

The rewards

Winning games and outmuscling and outrunning teams are banner marks for conditioning coaches.

But the real bonus comes in seeing players healthy and in shape.

“Watching big guys lose weight the right way, that’s what I want to see,” Zimmer said. “We had a linebacker who was benching 135 pounds playing 6A-5A ball. Watching these guys bulk up and get stronger and faster is all worth it.”

“A lot of guys can make you tired, but not everybody can make you better.”

Bigger, faster, stronger can carry internal meaning with teams, too.

Hempfield running back Gino Caesar said conditioning is more than a daily chore. The Spartans make it fun.

“I love how it relates to football and positions,” he said. “It’s not just about getting big and strong. We compete when we train. I know (senior) Eli Binakonsky and I race all the time. We want to make each other better.”

Shuttle-sprints often turn into competitions at Hempfield, as do the much-anticipated tug-of-wars.

“These athletes aren’t body builders or power lifters.” Zimmer said. “They are athletes. So the athletes that move better are the athletes that win.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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