It was an impressive sight when the New Albany football players wrapped up their morning practice by circling the seniors and spelling out E-A-G-L-E-S while doing jumping jacks.
Approximately 110 players, including 85 from grades 10 through 12, covered the field with burgundy and old gold.
Head coach Mark Mueller, who has been around the program since the team played in Division V in 2000, shook his head talking about the old days. There were 45 players on the roster.
“We’d be playing these barn-burners against small schools,’’ he said. “Those early years were tough. We’ve grown quite a bit. I knew we would grow. Now, we feel we can beat any team we play. The days of the big, big wins are past. We’re prepared to win every time we go out there.’’
In 2011, New Albany had what is becoming a typical season. It finished 9-3, won at least a share of the Ohio Capital Conference Capital Division for a third straight year and qualified for the Division II playoffs. It lost to Tri-Valley in the second round.
The optimism and goals are even higher this year. The Eagles want to go beyond winning a regional championship, and that probably will mean defeating Tri-Valley. They have lost to Tri-Valley two straight years.
“We want to see them again,’’ Mueller said. “They are good. We beat them and that’s an accomplishment.’’
New Albany arrived as a high school football power in 2004 under Mike Golden by winning two playoff games, including a rout of traditional power Ironton in the second round.
Golden left for Upper Arlington, but the beat has gone on under Mueller, who graduated from Finneytown High School and Ashland University. Under him, the Eagles made the playoffs in 2005, ’0 6, ’10 and last season.
This season, there are 20 seniors. Each is considered to be a captain. The biggest name is receiver and defensive back Darron Lee, an Ohio State recruit.
New Albany is a wealthy community, but do not make the mistake of thinking the football team is comprised of a bunch of boys who win because they have the best of everything.
The Eagles have developed the reputation of being a smash-mouth team. They defeated DeSales the previous two years and Big Walnut the previous four.
“It’s just a lot of hard work,’’ Lee said. “For us, it all starts in the weight room. It’s a physical and mental test. We do get mentally strong in there.’’
The weight room isn’t just the clanking of iron and huffing and puffing. Sometimes the players can’t hear themselves think.
“It’s a lot of loud music, screaming and everyone running around encouraging one another,’’ two-way senior lineman Cameron Horch said. “We have a weight chart and our strength coach keeps track of our progress. We know where we stand.’’
The players know where they stand on the field, too. If they are wearing full pads during the week, it’s because the coaching staff wants them to maintain their toughness.
Two years ago, when the Eagles were pushing opponents all over the place almost every week, Mueller had them practice in shorts most of the time.
The players take it to the limit even when they’re not in full pads. At the end of practice on Monday, the running back carried the ball 50 yards downfield on every play. When the ball was whistled dead, the players dropped to the ground, did a pushup and ran back to the huddle.
“We take it all the way,’’ senior running back and defensive back Alan Watson said. “That’s our motto.’’
Mueller relies on the players – especially the seniors – to police everyone on the roster. Coaches everywhere will tell you that a football team operates more smoothly when they don’t have to repeat themselves or sweat the small stuff.
New Albany coaches don’t believe in selecting a handful of captains. All seniors are captains.
“It’s not one person on this team,’’ Watson said. “You have just a few players watching over the team and they can get haughty. We look at every week as a new season. We want to go 1-0 every week. It’s the way we motivate ourselves.’’
Junior Joe Siegenthaler, a safety, said the players have been given a lot of responsibility.
“Coach said this isn’t his team, but it’s the players’ team,’’ he said. “I think we’re going to have a really good team because we have a good senior class that will lead. It’s more than winning. It’s what is important (in life and school).’’
Mueller concedes that he has it made coaching and teaching in a school system that has everything. The team has a full-time strength coach, two athletic trainers, eight assistant coaches who teach in the building and a stadium that looks to be small college.
“Next year, we’re going to have artificial turf in the stadium,’’ Mueller said. “We have one school district. We have great academics. I worry about maybe five kids a year when it comes to grades. That’s pretty good.’’