Robert Husseman, The Triplicate

Warriors new strength-training program making a difference

Two weeks ago, Del Norte High head football coach Ray Rook found himself with a little bit of free time.

Fifty members of his football team were participating in strength and conditioning workouts. Half were engaged in weightlifting. The other half performed a CrossFit exercise - heavy on aerobic activity, heavy on repetition.

Rook jumped in with the CrossFit group and did his best to keep up.

"We were doing pushups, situps and air squats," Rook said. Twenty reps (of each exercise repeated) for 20 minutes. Every kid I was working out with that day looked good. We look like we've been working."

If the Warriors have a superb season in 2013, it will have stemmed from a simple interaction last year. Rook called up his longtime friend Michael Dixon - an assistant coach with the Del Norte Youth Football A White squad, which won a Six Rivers Youth Football Conference championship in November - and asked for permission to use the gym equipment in his garage.

"He wanted to get in shape and stuff, so he started coming over to my house," Dixon said. "After a month, he offered me the job (of strength and conditioning coach)."

Dixon accepted the position and set about developing a program for the young Warriors. He learned about the Starting Strength barbell training program, designed by former U.S. Olympic Team weightlifting coach Mark Rippetoe, and drew from it to create a two-step program - a beginning level for rising freshmen and younger players and an intermediate level for older players.

"It just focuses on basic squat, bench press, shoulder press, deadlift, pull-ups," Dixon said. "It's basic, it doesn't have a whole lot of frills. Everything is a compound barbell movement soyou're working every muscle every time you do them."

CrossFit supplements the powerlifting regimen through its aerobic, full-body program. The Warriors continue to run during practice and have increased the tempo of practices to encourage running for longer periods of time.

"One of the biggest mistakes that a strength and conditioning coach can make is just to take bits and pieces from this program here and this program there and this program there and try to put something together," he said. "That doesn't make a complete program. After looking around for a month or two for a program that I thought would best fit (the team), it's worked really well."

Del Norte players are feeling the pain - and the gain. Dixon said that a couple of players have gained at least 30 pounds of muscle since the workouts started in the winter.

"I came out of wrestling and I cut a bunch of weight," Warriors senior Eric Turner said. "I thought I was in pretty good shape then. I feel a lot stronger."

Dixon has been known to call out players for not showing up to workouts and encouraging those that have showed up, developing trust with the players.

"He definitely made it a lot more motivating - a lot more organized, (with) a lot more structure," said Warriors senior Robin Pearce, whom coaches have lauded for his offseason work in the weight room. "Last year, it was a lot of goofing off. People didn't care. He opened people's eyes."

In shows of solidarity, Dixon and the other Del Norte coaches lift and work out along with the players at times. (Junior varsity offensive coordinator John Maready is the fitness standard bearer of the team.) They stay through the CrossFit regimen, which Pearce described as "really intense."

The Warriors finished 2012 with a 2-8 overall season record (1-6 Humboldt-Del Norte Big 5 League); four of those losses came by a touchdown or less. Dixon believes that the work the team is doing now will pay dividends in fourth quarters from September to November.

"We tell the kids, what you're doing (in workouts) is tougher than anything you're going to do on a football field," he said.

Reach Robert Husseman