Eastern Regional High School’s football practice is nothing out of the ordinary – strength and conditioning drills, practicing plays and movements, correcting positions and weight training.
When the team takes its first step on home turf for a regular season game against Washington Township High School on Sept. 12, it will be an ordinary start of the season with the hopes of bringing home a second Group IV championship title –appearing in six finals and 19 playoff games, the first in 2003.
But the Vikings have had a powerhouse of success stories, guiding players to high school graduation, watching them start on Division I teams and some even making it to the NFL.
Cornerback Logan Ryan was New England Patriot’s third-round draft pick this year. Former NFL defensive back Chris Canty and Phil Trautwein, an offensive tackle for the San Diego Chargers who was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009 by the Saint Louis Rams, also went to Eastern.
On the college level, freshman Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple was rated as the No. 11 prospect nationally on ESPN 150 and was a No. 1 prospect in New Jersey and a No. 6 cornerback prospect, according to the Ohio State Buckeyes’ website.
Former Penn State cornerback Adam Taliaferro might have made it to the NFL, but suffered a career ending spinal cord injury during his fifth freshman game with the Nittany Lions. He was a standout athlete at Eastern taking his football-ending injury and providing athletes who suffer from head or spinal injuries emotional, financial and informational support through The Adam Taliaferro Foundation.
And this year, the Vikings’ team is led by quarterback Tom Flacco, the younger brother of Baltimore Ravens quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco.
Spending 14 years as head coach, Dan Spittal does not want to take all the credit for pushing these players toward success.
“The parents and everyone who is involved with them early get the first floor done and we get the second floor done. Hopefully, it becomes a house,” Spittal said.
Wide receiver coach David Dawson said all workouts build a family atmosphere with the players and coaching staff.
“We just want them to give 100 percent and do the best they possibly can while they are out here,” he said.
Since 2000, Dawson has been the wide receiver coach. He was a starting quarterback for Eastern in 1994 and 1995 before moving on to play college ball at Monmouth University.
Off-season preparation is more than setting practices and preparing players. Dawson said coaches study college training and practice techniques.
“We bring that back to see what would fit in with what we want to do [on the field],” he said.
According to Dawson, there are some natural receivers on the field. But repetition is key to all areas of success.
Defensive coordinator Chris Butler said there is no designated freshman team – varsity coaches drill all freshmen.
Dawson was working with a few freshmen on catching drills, while Spitall had a group working on defensive drills during practice on Aug. 8.
“They are taught the program at a young age. They see what goes into it and where they are going to be when they are seniors,” Butler said.
Butler joined the coaching staff nine years ago as a defensive end coach, moving to linebacker coach before becoming the defensive coordinator.
According to Butler, coaches use simple training drills and motivational tactics to get the guys going during practice. But it’s up to them to get motivated on game day.
“We go with three defensive lineman and more like defensive back/linebacker types to get some speed on the field, and guys like Logan Ryan and Eli Apple were good for that,” he said.
As a Division III football player, Butler said if they love the game and are passionate about throwing on pads, tying up a set of cleats and putting on a helmet before stepping onto the field, that’s the motivation that should keep them playing.
“We had a lot of guys from the senior class who are playing Division III ball. That translates to how well you do in the season, too. You got guys who love to play so they are dedicated to it and that helps your team,” Butler said.
The success of players goes beyond statistics and performance. Spittal said it’s important all players are taught leadership, character and the importance of academics.
According to Eastern Regional High School’s policy, students must pass minimum credit requirements to participate in any sporting activity.
For fall or winter sports all freshmen are eligible; 30 credits from the previous year is required for sophomores and juniors, and 27.5 credits are required for seniors.
“My thing is, 20 or 30 years from now, I want them to look back on high school and say ‘I learned more about being successful in life in football than I did in any class.’ If they can’t say that, then we didn’t do our job,” Spitall said.
The Eastern Regional High School Vikings will have their first scrimmage game at home, 1401 Laurel Oak Road, against Camden High School on Monday, Aug. 26, at 6 p.m.