Spring Ball creates opportunity for improvement and new leadership

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Training equipment located in Jack Kemp Stadium at Occidental College. Sunday, April 21, 2019. Miles Koupal/The Occidental

Occidental’s football team is back in action at Jack Kemp Stadium for their spring season, also known as “Spring Ball.” According to NCAA rules, since taking a break after their fall season, the team has 12 practices over the course of four weeks to train under the supervision of their coaches. After Spring Ball was canceled last year, having the opportunity to play this spring is important, according to quarterback Joshua Greaves (junior). Spending time training without pads and without any games takes the external pressure away from the game, according to linebacker Zachary Ulseth (sophomore).

“It’s a time period where we can really focus on the small things in terms of learning our playbook in better depth, knowing every detail of it, experimenting with new things within our playbook as well as people working hard to better themselves,” Ulseth said. “And I think it’s going to give us a better chance going into next season.”

Greaves echoed Ulseth’s thoughts, adding Spring Ball is a time for players and coaches to improve their skill in preparation for the upcoming fall season. According to head coach Robert Cushman, the team focuses on specific fundamentals and techniques that need improvement going into next season. These four weeks also allows the team one more chance to work together before splitting up for the summer.

“Going into the summer when we don’t have the ability to see our coaches every day or to practice with each other, Spring Ball allows us to have an idea of what we need to do and what we want to do,” Greaves said. “It also gives us vital experience because the off-season is a time when we usually just lift, but now that we have a spring season, those 12 practices are huge for us. It gives us confidence and experience going into the fall.”

As this season allows for the players to improve their game, it also gives coaches an opportunity to work on their skill as well, according to Cushman.

“Spring is critical as it allows us to review things from last fall and teach new ideas and skills,” Cushman said via email. “It puts our returners in a much better position when they return in the fall. It also allows our coaching staff to evaluate our personnel and get an idea where our roster/depth will be when we report in August.”

Training equipment located in Jack Kemp Stadium at Occidental College. Sunday, April 21, 2019. Miles Koupal/The Occidental

One of the most important parts of Spring Ball is working on the mental aspect of the sport, according to safety Harrison Wakefield (junior). It is a time when the team is given space to ensure everyone is mentally sharp in everything that’s done, according to Ulseth.

“It’s super hard because there are so many moving parts to football and it’s really hard to wrap your head around the concepts of what you’re doing if you’re only practicing in the fall,” Wakefield said. “Being able to go over our concepts in the spring is really important because it allows guys to know what we’re doing in the fall and to be able to think about it over the summer.”

Spring Ball also serves as a transition time between seasons. It’s the first time the team practices without the current senior players and without their leadership, according to all three players. This gives the sophomores and juniors the opportunity to step up into a larger leadership position, according to Ulseth.

“It’s the first time we don’t have the seniors, so now my class [the junior class] is the senior class,” Greaves said. “It’s a time when people in my class and the sophomore class have to step up and really start becoming leaders. It’s good for us because it gives us experience in leadership. You not only need experience on the field with different plays, but you also need experience with how to teach people and how to lead. It’s a time where we all can learn, it’s a big time for us.”

During the fall season, captains rotate every game — there are four appointed captains each game — and these leaders are determined by the coaches after watching the players during the week’s practices and games, according to Ulseth. This opportunity gives many players a chance to showcase their leadership skills Ulseth said.

The Jack Kemp statue marks the entrance to Jack Kemp Stadium, where in a few short months Occidental football will be starting a new season. Sunday, April 21, 2019. Miles Koupal/The Occidental

“There’s leaders everywhere on the team, including the freshmen,” Ulseth said. “There are definitely some standout freshmen who want to work, want to grind and want to motivate themselves and others. I think that extends across all the classes and the coaches. Everyone’s trying to hold each other accountable.”

For the junior players, Spring Ball prepares them to finish their college football career on a high note. After Spring Ball, they only have one season in the fall to play the sport at the collegiate level. This point of the year comes with a lot of reflection and realization about their football career so far, according to Wakefield.

“It’s weird thinking that everything is ‘the last’ now,” Wakefield said. “The last first day of winter training, the last first day of Spring Ball. I’m now going into my last summer as a football player. So knowing that this is all I have left has really driven me to push harder, to do extra, to take care of my body and to watch extra film and to realize that I don’t want to have any regrets.”

The team is wrapping up Spring Ball and is having their last practice of the 2018–2019 school year this coming Sunday.

“Just to play and be back out there with 50 of my best friends in the world and to represent Oxy is so fun,” Wakefield said. “Playing football is awesome.”