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The pads go on and the hitting starts

"Now we can find out who the football players are and who aren't," says Citrus coach Larry Bishop.

They spent a few days running through the preliminary stuff to get ready for the real thing. It finally arrived Thursday afternoon.

After adhering to the mandatory three-day, non-contact rule, area high school football teams kicked into full gear Thursday, donning the pads and hitting.

"Now we can actually get down to the game of football itself," Citrus coach Larry Bishop said. "The last few days we've been dealing with the mental aspect. Now (Thursday) we can find out who the football players are and who aren't."

Although fall practice officially began Monday, not everyone was on the practice field. So the three-day moratorium on contact drills didn't end for every player on Thursday.

"We're going to have about half in pads and half still in shorts," Lecanto coach Dick Slack said. "The other half had paperwork problems (earlier in the week) so they will still be doing other things. You have to have three days of practice before you can wear pads and we're being real careful about that."

Crystal River coach Earl Bramlett is being careful about how he transitions his players from non-contact to contact drills.

"We want to get them in good enough shape before the pads because of the heat and because, really, we haven't had any contact since spring," Bramlett said.

He said his philosophy is to train the players as much as possible during the first few days of practice so that when the "real" practice begins, there's no wasted time.

"When we're in shorts the first three days, we try to get all of our offenses and defenses in so we can stop and teach all along," Bramlett said. "That way, we don't have to stop (to learn) when we put the pads on."

YOUTH MOVEMENT: The defending district champion Crystal River boys and district runner-up girls swimming teams took their first dip in the pool Monday at Bicentennial Park. The Pirates, who have won the last four Gulf Coast Athletic Conference boys titles and the last three for girls, will have lots of new faces this year thanks to a huge turnout of freshmen. However, there will be enough talent coming back to help the Pirates maintain their spot at the forefront of area swimming.

"We started on Monday and there was lots of splashing and swimming going on," Pirates coach Tim Holme said. "We've got a little over 40 people coming out, trying hard to get ready. It will take another week or so to sort out things. We have some good swimmers coming back, but we also have lots of new faces. We have more freshmen than we've ever had, which is terrific. We'll just have to see how it works out. We won't really settle things until Aug. 31, when we have our eighth annual Blue and Gold meet. That's when the kids will get a chance to show what they can do."

THE NUMBERS GAME: Crystal River has about 28 varsity football players participating in fall practice, which Bramlett said is just "about average" for his team. The Pirates also have 40 junior varsity players.

Crystal River's success over the years proves that the Pirates can win without a lot of players. But Lecanto and Crystal River have taken a different approach this year. The coaching staffs at both schools spent a good portion of the off-season scouring the halls and recruiting new players.

It apparently has paid off.

Citrus has 78 players at fall practice, up from about 55 last year. Lecanto began the week with 32, but has since increased to 57.

"We're projecting between 65 and 70 kids," Slack said. "That's up for us. We've been recruiting real heavily and we had a real good off-season program and kept people involved."

Bishop isn't complaining about the large turnout Citrus has this season, but he admits it has been a little more than he anticipated.

"No, I didn't expect that many at all," he said. "It has been hectic. Really, the paperwork has been a nightmare, getting it straight. We have a lot of young kids that have never done this before. We've got no more helmets to give out. But it is something we wanted."

Eventually, many of the players will be moved to the junior varsity team. But in the meantime, practices have had to be structured around the huge group that remains. That means more players in individual groups and fewer repetitions of daily drills.

But don't think for one minute that Bishop is complaining.

"Again, this is what we wanted," he said. "It's a positive to have that many kids. Everybody is real excited. They are upbeat and working hard. We've had some real hot days out there this week, but nobody has been complaining."

A FRESH START: When Ira Sparkman took over the Crystal River girls cross country team last season, it was his first time as a cross country coach and he inherited a program that was in disarray. There was only one returning runner and not a lot of others waiting in the wings to participate.

"Last year was my first year and I had to baby them to get them to come out and keep them out," Sparkman said.

Fast forward to this season, where things have changed for the Pirates.

"I'm getting a little stricter on our requirements for (earning) varsity letters," Sparkman said. "They have to have 80 percent participation in practice and compete in all meets. I told them we may skip one (Hudson meet) because of homecoming, but they'll have to be at the rest.

"I learned from experience. Last year was hit and miss. They showed up when they wanted. I told them this year I'm not going to waste my time. If they want a team, we'll have one, and if not, I'll go home."

Crystal River held a meeting Tuesday, but won't begin running until Monday afternoon.

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