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Youth football in full swing

Members of the Gilford youth program go through drills during practice last week at Gilford Meadows. Jeff Lajoie. (click for larger version)
August 29, 2011
GILFORD – There's a certain continuity evident at Gilford Meadows during the fall season. On several nights, football players from second grade all the way through high school can be found practicing just yards from each other, as the Friends of Gilford Football Silver Hawks program kicked off practices last week for the various teams in the system.

The program, which features teams in the second and third grade age group (flag football), fourth through sixth grade (Snow Belt), and seventh and eighth grade (Granite State), had all of its teams preparing for the season last week, with the Gilford High School varsity squad also on the field at the Meadows. That kind of cohesiveness isn't lost on the players and coaches in the program.

"It is nice when there are those certain times that the entire program is on the field at the same time," explained Snow Belt coach Bruce Cole. "It gives the younger kids something to look forward to. And it's not just looking up to the high school kids practicing, it's fourth graders looking up to sixth graders and seeing how their roles are going to change as they work their way up."

The Gilford varsity football team, which finished second in Division VI last season, has certainly reaped some of the benefits of the youth system. Dave Miville, who coaches the seventh and eighth graders, saw his JV squad of seventh graders reach the championship game last season and has them back hungry for more as eighth graders for the varsity team. This time next fall however, those players will be entering the high school level and looking to contribute at the big time.

"We're a feeder program for the high school in every sense," said Miville. "I run the same offense as the high school team and that makes for an easy transition when they get up to the next level. We use the same terminology and try and keep it as similar as possible so they're ready to go right away as high school players."

Miville's team, which has adopted the motto 'Unfinished Business' this season after coming up just short a year ago, also prepares for high school by playing a difficult schedule. Gilford will play opponents like Concord, Hollis/Brookline and John Stark, all schools that play in higher divisions than the Golden Eagles' high school squad.

"When they come to high school, it's a big help going against these bigger kids from bigger programs when they were in middle school," said Miville. "For a lot of them, that's when the light switch goes on. You just don't know when that switch is going to go on sometimes but when they're playing tough competition, it tends to happen sooner."

Miville's team has high hopes for this fall, but that doesn't mean it's going to be an easy ride through the regular season and into the playoffs.

"A lot of teams are gunning for us after the season we had last year at the seventh grade level," the coach said. "But the kids are ready for that challenge and we're looking forward to it. Our main goal is to have fun though, that's always what it's been about for us. And we want them to be better players at the end of the season."

It's a different task for Cole, who coaches the players in the fourth through sixth grades on the Snow Belt team. Most players see their first exposure to tackling when they enter the age group.

"We've got 19 or 20 fourth graders who have never played football before," explained Cole. "Some kids will be pretty ready right away but the majority of kids, it takes them about three to four weeks for things to click."

While he's dealing with all levels of ability, Cole has a universal goal he tries to achieve during the fall season.

"The challenge at this level is you want to teach them to love football," he said. "Now that's not always going to happen, some kids might not take to it, but you want them to learn the fundamentals of the game and you want to teach them in a fun way."

The youngest level in the program is made up of second and third graders, and the youngsters learn the game while competing in a flag football setting.

"It's pretty much their first exposure to the sport so we try and keep them interested and keep it loose and fun for them," said flag coach Greg Madore. "And we try and do different things to make it exciting. Last year we played at halftime of one of the eighth grade games and the kids really enjoyed that."

The flag program holds games between the three Gilford teams, as travel to play other towns during the week can be difficult for such young kids. Madore expects about 18 kids for the beginning of his flag season, but that number will likely change with the beginning of school.

All told, the numbers for the youth programs hover in the 90s this fall. The organization purchased new helmets for the upcoming season, 25 of which came thanks to the help of the Merrimack Mudcats as a result of their annual football camp. Players come from the towns of Gilford, Gilmanton and Belmont while several Meredith players are also on the Granite State roster. For more information on the program, visit their website at www.gilfordfootball.org.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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