Rhinelander High School football coach Aaron Kraemer oversees a drill during a coaching contact day practice at the RHS practice fields Thursday, June 13. The Hodags covered fundamentals of blocking and tackling, and prepared for their summer 7-on-7 passing league, during the two-hour practice — the first organized team activity for the Hodags after Kraemer was promotoed to head coach in April. (Photos by Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Drake Martin heads toward the end zone while Alex Olson, right, simulates a block during a coaching contact day practice at the RHS practice fields Thursday, June 13.
6/15/2019 7:30:00 AM Hodag football holds contact day Fundamentals, 7-on-7 emphasized in first OTA for new head coach Aaron Kraemer
Coach Aaron Kraemer admitted to having some butterflies Thursday as members of the Rhinelander High School football team convened for the first time this summer. For Kraemer, it was his first organized team activity since being named head coach of the program back in April.
The Hodags held the first of five allotted contact days during the summer. The other four will take place during a team camp in July, but there are plenty of other opportunities for the team members to congregate unofficially during the summer, with the school's summer weightlifting program underway as well as the Northwoods 7-on-7 passing league.
"Butterflies for me, a little bit, as I take the reins," Kraemer said prior to Thursday's two-hour practice season. "(Former RHS head) coach (Chris) Ferge did a great job getting the kids excited about summer and I'm hoping I can do the same thing."
Thursday's day camp served three purposes. First, it was a refresher for the team ahead of the 7-on-7 opener, which took place later in the day at Lakeland. Second, it offered an opportunity to focus on fundamentals. Finally, it was simply a chance for the team to get back to football following a long offseason.
"It's been a long winter and spring with a little bit of turmoil and then some triumph too for them," Kraemer said, referencing the RHS boys' track team's Great Northern Conference championship in May. "We want to get a little more consistent going forward and get them playing football."
Additionally, the team spent roughly a quarter of Thursday's session working on blocking and tackling. Kraemer said two of the program's assistant coaches - Paul Ellenbecker and Jeremy Monk - recently took advanced blocking and tackling training classes from USA football. They took what they learned from the program and brought it back to the team.
"I want all our athletes to understand that blocking and tackling is the game of football," Kraemer said. "If you can't do it right, you can't win. We're going to continue to make that our emphasis as we go through the season."
As it has for the past several summers, the Hodags will participate in the Northwoods passing league, which includes fellow area schools Lakeland, Northland Pines and Tomahawk. The four-week program will run Thursday through July 11, skipping Independence Day.
"Those are teams you're going to see this year, two of them at least (Tomahawk and Lakeland), and another (Northland Pines) that you're going to see in the scrimmage," Kraemer said. "It's important for us to get our bearings and understand who our opponents are right away, and then just get our kids playing football again."
In addition, Rhinelander will travel to Wausau East on Saturday for the annual Eastbay 7-on-7 tournament.
Kraemer said it was also an important day for the senior class which features back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher Drake Martin. This group is looking to turn things around after going 1-8 last year, and suffering the program's fourth winless Great Northern Conference season in the last five years.
"You talk about me changing roles? Our seniors are now stepping up in their first practice (as seniors) to show the rest of these kids what the tempo is going to be like, what our culture is going to be like, what our practice feel is going to be like," Kraemer said. "That's what I really want to focus on. I want to focus on uptempo practice (and) the little things. That's what we talked about in track and I do believe in it - doing the little things right and not letting little things go. If we do that early, our athletes will buy into the fact that we have to be tight in the fundamentals and then things are going to get better from there."
Nearly 35 players were in attendance at Thursday's camp and Kraemer said many more than that have already checked in during the school's summer lifting program.
"What I'm more excited about than numbers is the atmosphere in the weight room in the morning," he said. "These kids are putting in an hour and a half of hard work - speed and strength ... The tempo's been up. The atmosphere has been light and loose, and we're working hard."
Hodag team camp will take place July 15-18 ahead of a two-week lull before the start of fall practice, which falls a week later this year. Equipment handout will take place Aug. 5, with the first day of practice Aug. 6.
"I hope that when it comes to Aug. 5 and Aug. 6 when we get out here for the first time, people are going to see how hard we've been working," Kraemer said. "Then it's our job to prove to them we're ready to play football."
The Hodags' Green and White practice is set for Aug. 10. The team will scrimmage at Northland Pines Aug. 16 and open the season at Prescott Aug. 23.
Kraemer also spoke with excitement about action taken by the Rhinelander school board Monday to further upgrade district athletic facilities. The first phase of the project will be to convert Mike Webster Stadium to artificial turf, a project Kraemer said should be done in time for the Hodags' first home game Sept. 6 vs. Lakeland.
Despite a recent redesign of the field and widening of the track surface, drainage continued to be an issue at the facility. The issue was exacerbated by an abnormally wet fall and trying to share the field with the RHS boys' soccer team.
"What it does, it allows us to know that every single time we know it's going to be the exact same field," Kraemer said. "We don't have to worry about sogginess. We don't have to worry about wet. We don't have to worry about the conditions, whether a team has played on it before you."
The board voted to accept bids to convert the field to artificial turf at a cost of $573,000. Additionally, the board voted to spend up to $5.7 million, on top of $1.2 million in private donations, toward a building on an indoor athletic facility - the exact format and size of which is still to be determined.
"We have awesome facilities. I've told people for a long time that we do," Kraemer said. "Now, it's just going to get better, which shows you the care for athletics and for our students that our school board has, our community has, that they're willing to put this stuff in. They worked very hard in getting this passed. A lot of the board members - Mike Roberts who's been coaching with us for a long time, other board members and other community members - they've been trying real hard to get these things passed and to build these dream facilities."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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