As soon as the clock struck 5 a.m. on Monday, St. James Academy coach Tom Radke jumped out of bed with a smile on his face and high expectations for his fifth year with the Thunder football team.
The rest of the Thunder players started their morning shortly thereafter with a 90-minute morning workout, sat through classes and then capped the first official day of fall sports in Kansas with another practice after the final bell.
“We lost our last game last year and didn’t make the playoffs, so we are champing at the bit to get back to the level where we want to be,” Radke said. “It’s time.”
It will be a slower start to camp this season for the Thunder and every other team in the state with new practice restrictions from the Kansas High School Activities Association. Monday was helmets only, Tuesday through Thursday they can add pads and then Friday, they can begin full contact.
After the first game, another restriction will limit full contact to 90 minutes or less per week, but Radke said neither will change St. James Academy’s approach since the team is accustomed to hitting for only about 80 minutes per week the last few years.
“It’s about being smart and looking at what the guys can and cannot handle,” Radke said. “There are a lot of guys that hit all the time and win and that is great for them, but I have all girls, so these are my sons and I want to take care of them.”
Mark Lentz, assistant executive director of the Kansas association, said the new regulations are based on the National Federation of State High School Associations concussion summit and its own football focus group. He also said most of the reactions have been positive to the initial changes.
“In reality, I think that most people were making these changes before we put them into place because no matter how much you want to win, you need your kids healthy,” Lentz said. “It has brought more of an emphasis to make sure we are doing it.”
Radke pointed out that the addition of shoulder pads Tuesday would be even safer than it has been in previous years where they still could not wear pads.
The Thunder already had its countdown going to the first game, which will take place on Sept. 3 at Pleasant Hill. St. James, which is independent until 2016, has an open schedule, which includes games on both sides of state line and a trip to Jefferson City Helias. The school will join the Eastern Kansas League next season.
In Kansas Class 5A, future league foe St. Thomas Aquinas will be looking to repeat its state title-game run in coach Randy Dreiling’s second year. The Saints fell to Bishop Carroll in the championship game 39-7.
The Saints were just one of three area teams in state championship games, joining Class 4A Division I champion Bishop Miege and Class 6A champion Shawnee Mission East.