FAIRMONT — After just over a week of fall practice, it was already game day for East Fairmont senior Luke Pollock.
Or at least the hype and the energy surrounding the Bees made it seem that way for the quarterback-turned-running back.
“It was the first practice in full pads, and it was the most fun practice I’ve had in my full four years,” said Pollock following EFHS’s first practice at East-West Stadium on Tuesday night under the lights. “It felt like a Friday night game, it smelled like a game, I was like, ‘This is it, this is a game right here.’”
Indeed, East Fairmont still has another 15 days until its season opener on Aug. 29, against North Marion at Woodcutters Stadium and another 22 days until its first home game the following week against Grafton. The illusion of a Tuesday practice posing as a Friday night game is indicative of the metamorphic vibes surrounding the Bees’ program this season.
“If you watch our practice, you don’t see much walking around anymore. From what I gather — of course I wasn’t here — there was a lot of that and a lot of hanging heads,” said first-year coach Shane Eakle, an East Fairmont alumnus. “Now, guys after getting after it, and the kids have kind of started that expectation.”
Label those sentiments fluff-style platitudes all you like from Eakle and company, but there’s tangible evidence he and Pollock are speaking truths, that the team’s vibes, energy and even swagger are skyrocketing upward.
Just gander at the Bees’ increasing roster size and the uptick in kids who want to be a part of a program that hasn’t exactly been the hottest ticket in town the past few years.
The Bees are now up to 42 players, Eakle said, a drastic rise from the 15 or so who turned out for weight lifting in June and even a substantial hike from the 31 who participated in the team’s three-week live period in July. Even in the last week since the Bees returned from mini camp, Eakle said five more players have jumped aboard.
“We’ve just continued to grow,” Eakle said. “Kids are like, ‘Man, we’re working our butts off, but you want to be a part of this.’ So they’re grabbing their buddies and they get here and are like, ‘This really is good stuff. I don’t mind working hard. This is awesome. Let’s go get another kid.’”
Another positive: The bulk of the team’s additions thus far — aside from the incoming freshman class — have been sophomores, Eakle said, trending the program toward a brighter future in the years to come. From the bird’s eye view, those are the sort of fundamental in-house changes that will be East Fairmont’s golden ticket now and in the future.
Whether it’s a Tuesday practice or a Friday game, it’s the collective attitudes, competitive spirit, player-to-player leadership, etc. that reigns supreme in the overall assessment this season, not the average yards per play of the Bees’ offense or the first down differential compared to their opponent. Still, it’s those latter details and goals that so often dictate the end result of a Friday night, and it’s where the Bees still have a lengthy road ahead.
“We’re getting the foundation and we’re maybe starting to put a few studs on the first level,” said Eakle in terms of on-the-field nuance, from technique to scheme. “Anytime you start from scratch — and it looks nothing like last year from what they told me so it’s an overhaul — we know we’re going to have growing pains.”
It’s a tightrope of sorts, like cram-studying before an exam. Between offensive and defensive schematic install, ironing out miscommunication related to altered verbiage and jargon, and teaching players — some who are at new positions — techniques and reads based on those schematics and concepts, there’s a mountain of material to cover.
“It’s hard, it’s hard...because you really want to put these things in, and man, we really think we’re ready and we see glimpses of it, but then we’ll kind of mess it up. Then we’re like, ‘OK , we’re not quite ready for that. We got to back to this,’” Eakle said. “It’s not overly complex, but everybody’s got to be on the same page and do their jobs. It’s about getting kids familiar.”
Take Pollock, for example, likely the most established player on East’s roster following a 2018 season in which he quarterbacked the offense and was named All-Big 10 second team at linebacker. He’s transitioning from quarterback to running back, while also learning new offensive and defensive schemes.
“I think right now we’re all kind of getting in the flow with the new plays and new positions,” said Pollock, who gained 15 pounds since last season. “It’s feels like I already know the (running back) position with the way we’re running it and the way I’m getting with it. It’s like it’s in my head already. It’s just coming easy to me right now.”
Pollock may be more exception than rule in that department, but he spoke glowingly about the team’s revamped offensive line as well, which he said is faster and stronger than last season with senior center Paxton Nichols and senior tackle Avery Baker providing the unit with stable building blocks.
And senior Dom Postlethwait, who returns from a shoulder injury last season to take back his spot as the starting quarterback, got kudos from Pollock, too.
“He’s made for that really,” Pollock said of Postlethwait, who threw for 796 yards and 5 TDs as a sophomore.
There may actually be more of a personnel framework than one would think based on last year’s results for the Bees on both ends, and the errors of installing and learning scheme are to be expected, especially in regards to formations and personnel packages. Eakle understands such mistakes will be a given, but he’s prioritizing the idea of “aggressive mistakes.”
“We still occasionally see a thinking mistake, and we’re trying to get that more to where even if I make a decision, it’s got to be an aggressive decision,” Eakle said. “Then we’ll go back and coach them up.”
That approach inclines itself more naturally to the defensive side, where Eakle is carrying over many of his philosophies from his time at Tucker County, including the flexibility to toggle between a 4-3 and a 3-4 and a preference for slightly more zone coverage than man-to-man in an effort ot keep plays in front and offer more run support.
“One of the things I’m blessed with is I got great assistant coaches. I think that’s been one of the things that has allowed us to move as quick as we’ve moved,” said Eakle. “Everybody’s moving in their different position groups, everybody has roles, and we talk as a staff before and after practice to get where they need to be.
His assistants are Jeff Noechel, Josh Kisner, Mike Sarsfield, Ron Jones, Carter DeVault, Logan Bowman, Kellar Jenkins, Ben Callaway and Phil Wright.
“We don’t micro-manage. My coaches coach; that’s what they’re here to do. And I’m very, very blessed to have guys who are knowledgeable about the game, but also on board with making the commitment to make sure these kids understand what they’re doing,” Eakle said
The Bees will get an update on just how much progress they’ve made since the start of fall practice relative to outside competition on Saturday when they travel to Ripley for the first of two scrimmages over the next two weeks in advance of the season opener. Ripley is coming off a 10-2 season last year where they advanced to the quarterfinals of the Class AAA playoffs.
“We want to go down and compete. We want to go down and battle those guys,” Eakle said. “Win, lose or draw, we want Ripley to look and go, ‘Man, your kids got after it. They played hard.’ That’s our MO.”