The football team entered the 2012 offseason in unfamiliar territory. Coach Mickey Thompson's Bulldogs had enjoyed a decade of unparalleled success, capturing a state championship in 2007, appearing in two other state final games, and winning seven straight regional titles. Yet, despite claiming a ninth straight district title last year, the Bulldogs’ season ended in disappointing fashion, at least by their lofty standards. Stone Bridge lost to South County Secondary in the regional semifinals, marking the first time since 2002 that the Bulldogs did not advance to the state playoffs.
During the offseason, the Bulldogs have focused on a return to the state playoff form they held for so long. The offseason program has been the same for all players, whether an All-American like senior defensive end Jonathan Allen or a freshmen just trying to make the team. Weightlifting sessions were offered twice a day during the week, with hardcore speed and conditioning sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
"We just try to make things available for the kids so they can keep up with their workouts," said head coach Mickey Thompson. "We don't take roll, kids have so much going on that we just want them to have an opportunity to put in the work when they can."
Players appreciate the availability of the weight room, which appears to have paid dividends. Senior wide receivers Jimmy Higgins and Kevin Bradshaw recognized Allen—who reports he's now bench-pressing 335 pounds—and lineman Gabe Stewardson as the two strongest Bulldogs in the weight room. Allen gave a shout out to Jesse Mizell as another player who distinguished himself in the weight room over the summer.
While the lineman tend to star when pumping iron, skill position players often shine during speed and conditioning training. The sessions included multiple drills to improve quickness and acceleration. Often conducted on the school's tennis courts under the blazing midday sun, the worst is saved for the end of already exhausting workouts: sprints the length of a basketball court.
"We get out there with a lot of guys, we're working hard and we're competing with each other and getting after it," Bradshaw said.
In addition to the workouts, the team also took part in several specialized camps to work on specific skills and compete against other teams. Linemen took part in the less-than-glamorous-sounding "pit camp" to hone their skills in the trenches, while skill position players vied in seven-on-seven matchups with other schools.
"I think it's been one of our better offseasons,” Higgins said. “We had a lot of guys out here working on coming together as a team."
Hard work has been a staple of the Bulldogs' training programs throughout their run of dominance, but this offseason featured a new twist: nearly non-stop media attention. The team's dynamic duo of Allen and quarterback Ryan Burns attracted the full brunt of the new media's spotlight on highly touted college football recruits. For example, when conducting interviews for this article, a film crew was taping Burns' every move for an upcoming feature on the Stanford-bound senior. Google either player's name to get an idea of the maelstrom of attention that has enveloped such players.
But with college decisions made and the offseason winding down, Burns, Allen and the rest of the Bulldogs can put all of their attention toward the fall season.
"I'm so happy now I can just focus on my senior year," said Allen, who will play for the national champion Alabama Crimson Tide next year. "I'm so excited to have it over with."
Media attention or not, coach Thompson has enjoyed the offseason, the players’ hard work and the Stone Bridge football community.
"I feel good every year,” he said. “Our kids do whatever we ask them to do. They work hard, they're sincere. You can trust them. Parents are supportive, the community is supportive. It's about as good a high school situation as you can find."