Joe Palka has compiled a record of 46-16 at Whitmer, utilizing a college-style training program and state-of-the-art facilities. The Panthers won City League championships the last two seasons.
Twenty minutes out of every day, Whitmer football coach Joe Palka will remove the whistle from around his neck, shut off the film projector, and go for a run.
Palka says exercise around lunch time gives him the energy boost needed to make it through an inevitably stressful afternoon, but that’s not the only reason he does it. These lunchtime strolls up and down the streets near Tremainsville Road give Palka a perspective into how fortunate his players are to be able to hang out every day in the coolest house in the neighborhood.
The football building at Whitmer is a mansion in this modest area of West Toledo. Inside of it are lockers wide enough to take a nap in and an athletic training room where players can rejuvenate with cold tubs and hot packs. There are shower rooms, kept clean by a janitor, and meeting rooms, air-conditioned and with gadgets like computers, projection screens, and video cameras. Nike is the team’s official outfitter.
“We have a great football facility,” Palka said. “But a lot of our kids don’t come from much.”
Many things have happened over the last seven years to advance Whitmer from a good and proud program to one that is a frontrunner to win its first state championship this fall. The transformation began with the hiring of athletic director Tom Snook in 2004 and continued with his appointment of Palka as coach two years later. Then came the goodies. Field turf was installed inside a renovated Memorial Stadium, and not long after, so was a 32-feet-by-22-feet video scoreboard. At some point in the program’s rise, aging weight room equipment was traded out so the Panthers could stay ahead of industry trends. Last year, they moved into Palka’s palace, and this year they will be a charter member of the new Three Rivers Athletic Conference, a league that will deal the Panthers a more challenging schedule.
“We’re a little spoiled,” said star defensive end Chris Wormley. “Teams in the City League don’t have these facilities, so we’re grateful.”
Brian Stamper, left, and Brian Gradomski block for kicker Nick Holley during special teams practice at Memorial Stadium. The Panthers open their regular season at home against Start on Aug. 26.
“We have a very reflective population of society,” Palka said. “It’s diverse, and it’s real world. You can do anything here. You can take college prep classes, but if you want to get in trouble, you can do that too.”
On Monday, the Panthers reported to preseason camp, commencing a season with no shortage of story lines. The Blade was there to document the happenings at the first three days of camp, from the time the team arrived at 7:30 a.m. until Palka’s coaching staff ran out of steam at 5:30 p.m. or later.
Camp this year is as much about who is not playing for the Panthers this fall as who is. It’s also the beginning of a potentially life-changing year for four seniors who are good enough to play college football but currently lack the required academic scores to do so. Camp is highlighted by a bulletproof defense, led by the freakishly gifted Wormley, and by an offense with uncertainty at critical positions. Star players are called out among their peers for poor practice habits. Those who missed summer workouts, the coaching staff doesn’t bother discussing. To the 47-year-old Palka, optional practices in the summertime “are for charity” and preseason practices are for giving repetitions to the guys who are going to play.
Palka’s philosophy this year is to improve, every play and every day. “I became a better coach when I learned to embrace camp,” Palka tells his players after practice. “It used to be I couldn’t wait for the first game.”
The 16 coaches operating this factory work too hard, sleep too little, stress too much, and do it all for mostly laughable wages. But they do it because the program, from what goes on inside the football building to what happens on the field, is humming.
University of Michigan tight end Kevin Koger returns to his alma mater to pump up this year’s Whitmer football team.
Like all of their practices, every minute is accounted for when the Panthers step onto the field for the first time. A one-hour, 45 minute practice is broken into 18 five-minute sessions, plus a few more for stretching and such. This set-up is used by many college programs to ensure no time is wasted and so the tempo of practices doesn’t wane. It’s more likely a player will give maximum effort knowing a drill ends in two minutes rather than being left to wonder if it will end in 15.
If a player screws up a blocking assignment or runs the wrong route, practice continues without pause. Corrections will be made, but not until film study at 10 a.m.
This looks nothing like an initial practice should look, at least not on a high school field. It’s apparent the receivers used the 10 days of offseason practice allowed by the state to clean up their running routes, and linebackers know precisely the times they’re expected to blitz and the times they’re expected to fake a blitz.
“It’s honeymoon day,” Palka says, aware his players will eventually come down from the natural high felt by the start of football season.
Palka, 46-16 as Whitmer’s head coach, has proven his college-style approach to running a high school program works. In his five years as head coach, Whitmer has been to the playoffs four times and won consecutive City League titles in 2009-10. Upsets, or big wins, are labeled “Eye Tooth” victories, kept to document memorable Friday and Saturday nights in the Palka era. The count grew to 15 in 2010, when the Panthers rolled to three straight playoff wins, over Massillon Washington, Twinsburg, and St. John’s.
Linebacker Michael Bodi intercepts a pass during practice. Bodi and his teammates will later break down the play in a film session.
The 2011 Panthers squad, in the opinion of many, has the talent to accomplish what the 2010 team fell short of.
Practice ends with Wormley breaking a team huddle with a “State Champs!” chant.
A familiar face arrives in the afternoon to watch practice, and this excites Palka. Whitmer graduate Kevin Koger, a senior tight end at Michigan, is the coach’s all-time favorite player. No one who has played for Palka has worked as hard as Koger did in 2006 and ‘07. Koger played offense and defense on Palka’s first two teams, a rarity at Whitmer, and yet still gave more effort than all of his teammates during conditioning sprints.
“Kevin is my favorite example,” Palka tells his players.
Palka exhibits his admiration for Koger strategically, knowing senior stars like Wormley, running back Jody Webb, and offensive lineman Storm Norton are listening and might be tempted this year to put in the work needed to replace Koger as Palka’s prototypical model player.
In addressing the team after practice, Koger stresses the importance of accountability, a tenet often expressed by new Michigan coach Brady Hoke. Palka then challenges his marquee players to be leaders. Lead every drill. Every run. Every film study. Everything. There’s nothing that makes a coach happier than when his six best players happen to be his six hardest workers.
7 a.m.: Stadium opens for players to get dressed and get taped by team trainers.
7:30: Positional meetings. Special teams, a unit that at Whitmer is nicknamed Special Forces, is emphasized during a study session in the main room of the facility.
8: Practice. A fence is all that separates the football building from Memorial Stadium. Players will stretch before beginning a practice consisting of 18, five-minute periods.
10: Tape review. A folding door that looks like one used to secure a concession stand drops from the ceiling to cut the main room in half. On the south end, head coach Joe Palka operates the remote control as players watch practice on an LCD projection screen. On the north end of the room, defensive coordinator Greg Kubicki leads the defense’s review.
10:30: Lunch. Players can pack a lunch or leave to get food. All staff members bring lunch from home and eat while discussing team matters.
11:15: Players get dressed and get taped.
11:45: Meetings. Players break off into position meetings.
12:15: Practice. The team has its second practice.
2:15: Tape review. The concession door comes back down, with the offense and defensive players huddled in front of separate projection screens.
2:45: Staff meeting. First, as one group, and then by offense and defense.
5:30: Staff leaves.
Unfortunately for Palka, not all of his best players are here. All-state linebacker Jamar Ridley has an enlarged heart; his career is likely over. Running back Tre Sterritt, recently declared eligible to play after moving to Arizona and then back to Whitmer, would not undergo a required physical examination until that evening. Webb, with no hurdles to overcome, overslept and arrived an hour late. That drew the ire of Palka, who called out the all-state running back in front of the team, but then praised Webb the next day for working hard.
“I can’t do one thing and expect other people to do the opposite,” Webb said. “I have to be a leader.”
Leroy Alexander, a two-sport star at Springfield, tried to transfer to Whitmer this offseason but was ruled ineligible to play by the OHSAA. Alexander has filed an appeal, but no one at Whitmer seems optimistic the state will overturn its ruling.
Nigel Hayes is missing from practice too. An outstanding receiver that stands 6-foot-7, Hayes is an even better basketball player. He plans to forgo football this fall and spend more time taking jump shots.
Palka has other plans for Hayes.
Visitors are welcome to watch Whitmer’s practice. Former players pop in and give Palka and his staff hugs. Fathers of players take in the day’s events from the bleachers. And then there’s John Miller, quite easily Whitmer’s No.1 fan, who seems to be everywhere and see everything, even though he’s partially blind.
But at Tuesday morning’s practice, one visitor is getting more attention than the others — Hayes. He arrives, flanked by his parents, and soon makes his way onto the field to greet his former teammates. Webb ribs Hayes, telling him to make a U-turn and go back to the bleachers.
“That’s where I’ll be all fall,” Hayes replies.
Meanwhile, assistant coach Ken Winters is losing his cool dealing with a struggling receiving corps. Winters later ripped the unit’s effort during a coaches meeting, calling it “one of the worst practices in 10 years.” Winters told the receivers to soul search.
Hayes, the 43rd-ranked basketball prospect in the class of 2013, watched the entire practice with his parents. Hayes was itching to get on the field. Right?
“Nope,” Hayes, the brother of Ohio State freshman defensive lineman, Kenny Hayes, said. “I got my itch cream on.”
Hayes, a 4.3 student, has adult whit. But he’s still just a kid, and kids are predisposed to changing their minds. It’s Palka’s job to convince Hayes he should, and just in case he’s successful, locker No. 49 is being held empty.
Players leave their bikes lined up outside Whitmer’s Memorial Stadium, which was renovated in recent years. Field turf was installed, and the Panthers’ stadium boasts a large video scoreboard.
As he storms off the field, Winters is stopped by Miller, the super fan, who asks him how he’s doing.
“I’d be doing a lot better if the guy in the stands was out on the field,” Winters bristled.
In an operation where time means everything, it’s odd that Palka’s assistants are sitting in a post-practice meeting waiting for their boss to enter the room and get down to business. Palka, a former recruiting coordinator at his alma mater Eastern Michigan, is outside making a sales pitch to Hayes.
A more hard-headed coach may have played tough with Hayes, refusing to strike any deals needed to get him on the field. That’s not Palka. It’s obvious Hayes makes Whitmer a better team, and it’s obvious Hayes’ first love is not football. So Palka is willing to make a compromise. If Hayes only wants to attend one practice per day, and then go jack up a couple of hundred fade-a-ways, that will be allowable.
Apparently, Hayes’ itch cream melted away in the summer heat, because he informs Palka he plans to show up next week ready for work.
Palka enters the staff meeting and delivers the good news.
“Sorry for the delay, but I figured it was well worth it,” Palka said.
Everyone laughs. Everyone, that is, except for Winters, who looks emotionally exhausted.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6160.
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