Taylor Hopkins goes through a drill during Monday’s practice.
Taylor Hopkins goes through a drill during Monday's practice. (Tori Cummings)
The fall athletic season has officially begun, as the Graham High School football, volleyball, tennis and cross country teams got down to business Monday morning in preparation for the coming competition.

Football

The football team went back to basics on Monday, fine tuning their skills for the 2014 season.  

“It's a relief to have them here and finally start,” head coach Kenny Davidson said. 

The Steers focused on fundamentals and conditioning for the first few days. Davidson noticed how much the summer conditioning program helped the athletes prepare for practice.

“You could tell. The conditioning was a lot easier (for them) than the ones that had not shown up,” he said. “It's gonna be tougher for them to catch up.”

The team will practice in helmets, shirts and shorts through Thursday. Then, the pads will come out of the lockers and it will be full speed ahead toward the Aug. 29 season opener against Vernon.

With 14 starters returning and an experienced quarterback, the Steers have been picked to win District 4-4A and make a deep playoff run. The 7 on 7 team's state title run helped the new receivers and quarterback Landry Turner get on the same page, strengthening Graham's chances at a district title.

However, the offense still has to replace second team all-state running back Dillon Gonzales. Justin Escalon, Hagan Hughes and Nick Martin will work together to fill that role. 

Volleyball
After a month-long wait, coach Marci Faulk finally got her chance to work with the Lady Blues volleyball team.

“They were very receptive,” Faulk said. “Just like all summer, they seem eager to want to change.
Coach Marci Faulk gives instructions during Monday’s practice. Monday marked the first time Faulk could officially coach the Lady Blues.
Coach Marci Faulk gives instructions during Monday's practice. Monday marked the first time Faulk could officially coach the Lady Blues. (Tori Cummings)


Faulk entered Monday knowing the Lady Blues had an abundance of talent that she would have to sift through before forming her varsity squad. That depth became evident as four freshmen practiced with the upperclassmen fighting for a spot on varsity.

The Lady Blues graduated seven seniors, and setter Madison Farmer will miss the season due to an injury.
Faulk wanted to set her varsity roster on Tuesday, but she was almost certain that athletes would move around during the next few weeks. With so many talented athletes, the Lady Blues have set themselves up for a bright future.

“They're just gonna push each other for that playing time,” Faulk said. “But that's gonna make the entire program better.”

The Lady Blues stressed the fundamentals during the first few days, especially since Faulk has changed footwork, serving techniques and defensive strategies. They focused on passing drills and getting the ball to the setter, which allowed the offense to flow better.

While the on-court talent has been plentiful, Faulk noticed the team's mental toughness didn't come on quite as strong.

Tennis
The tennis team enters the fall season hoping to strengthen a young roster that will challenge coach Matt Birdwell to push each player in the right direction.
Amber Langworthy hits the ball at the first tennis practice of the season.
Amber Langworthy hits the ball at the first tennis practice of the season. (Tori Cummings)


“(I'm) working with (varsity) players, trying to get them better, where they're hitting the ball faster, they're hitting the ball exactly where they want it to be every time,” Birdwell said. “Then you have these players that just want to get the ball in the court and it's a high floater that just barely falls in.”

Birdwell knows the talent gap will make it hard to keep every athlete engaged so they can continue to develop as tennis players. 

The first couple of practices will revolve around fundamentals and building the team's challenge ladder. The ladder, which is based on competitions in practice, ranks the athletes to determine who will compete in varsity and junior varsity matches. 

New assistant Kim Brewster will help coach the junior varsity team. For many of the younger athletes, hitting the ball consistently and sustaining rallies will be the main goals, Birdwell said.

“If they don't do so well, sometimes, then they kind of get down so you have to pep them up,” he said. “Let them know that they're getting better even if it's small increments.”

Cross Country

The cross country team wants to return to regionals again this season.

As the girls team ran around the GHS parking lot for a warm-up lap, coach Robert Ownby used it as an opportunity to determine  who looked ready and who, perhaps, needed some work.

After the warm-up, Ownby was presented with another opportunity to analyze and assess his squad.
The boys and girls teams started their season with a run from the high school to the Steer Bowling Alley and back.

Ownby said the initial run gave the coaches an idea of what the runners had done over the summer to prepare for the season.

“It was tough for them,” Ownby said. “We've got some work to do to get their lungs in them.”

Read the entire story for each sport in Wednesday's Graham Leader.