Football team hopes increased summer activities will build unity

Doug Brown

Darrell Hazell said his biggest challenge wasn’t replacing the four defensive players now graduated and off to the NFL. It wasn’t teaching his new team a complex playbook. It wasn’t learning to be a head coach for the first time. Kent State’s new coach said it was unifying his players.

“The biggest change we needed to make was making it a team,” Hazell said at the Mid-American Conference media day in Detroit last week, a sentiment echoed by coaches and players.

Athletic director Joel Nielsen said what the players are doing this summer is helping. More football players are staying on campus than ever before and it’s also the first time incoming freshmen have moved to campus early to get a jumpstart on class and workouts, Nielsen explained.

Doug Davis, the new strength coach who followed Hazell from Ohio State to Kent, said he recognized the players needed more than to just be stronger and faster. The team had some problems, Davis said.

“Physically, they were a pretty talented group,” he said about his initial impressions of the team in the winter. “But I felt like there might have been some division, and the kids needed to understand that there isn’t any one person or any two people – or 50 people for that matter – that are going to take care of business. It’s going to be the entire group.

“It really takes everybody to truly make a change. They accepted and bought into that on day one.”

Preseason poll

The flashes are expected to finish in the middle of the pack according to the MAC preseason media poll – voted on by the 16-member MAC News Media Association – and revealed at the media day in Ford Field.

MAC East (first place votes, total points)

1. Miami (4, 97)

2. Ohio (8, 96)

3. Temple (4, 88)

4. KENT STATE (0, 57)

5. Bowling Green (0, 48)

6. Buffalo (0, 37)

7. Akron (0, 25)

MAC West

1. Toledo (8, 83)

2. N. Illinois (5, 81)

3. W. Michigan (2, 76)

4. C. Michigan (1, 55)

5. Ball State (0, 27)

6. E. Michigan (0, 24)

MAC championship game winner (votes)

1. Toledo (5)

2. N. Illinois (3)

3. Miami (3)

4. Ohio (1)

5. W. Michigan (1)

Summer school

This summer, most of the football players stayed on campus, something Davis explained was critical to both unifying and physically developing the team.

Nielsen said this was the beginning of something new for the Flashes.

“In talking with our current players and past players, and looking at other programs that have been successful, summer school has always been an important aspect to successful programs,” Nielsen said. “We improved things last summer, but this summer we stepped it up significantly.”

One way they improved the summer for players was increasing their stipend.

In past years, when participation has been low, football players received $300 to spend on housing and other expenses while they were on campus taking classes for the summer.

“You can’t pay off rent with $300, let alone eat and get gas,” said one graduated football player who stayed on campus in the summers. “It’s not like we can get a job. We had football in the morning and you’ve got to take class to get the money, but you can’t get a job.”

Another graduated player agreed the stipend was not nearly enough to get by in the summer.

“That’s just rent, and they expect us to eat,” he said. “We don’t have time to get a job.”

Nielsen said that through fundraising efforts, the athletic department has been able to increase the stipend to $700, making it affordable for more players to stay for workouts and attend classes.

The money to pay for the increased stipend was raised in the past 12 to 14 months from alumni and boosters, Nielsen said. He said he expressed to them the importance of having players stay over the summer.

“Summer school is one of our most immediate needs,” he said. “We would have had only a handful of them and who knows how many would have been able to stay?”

Summer workouts

“This is our first summer up here,” said Chris Anzevino, a redshirt senior and all-conference center. “I used to go on vacation and stuff, so I’d come up to Kent and work out every once in a while. The whole team’s been up here in the summer, so we’ve just been building family unity. That’s something we’ve been really working on a lot.”

Davis’s first goal for the summer was “for everybody to have confidence in each other and individually what they can do,” he said. “You give them opportunities throughout the summer to get confidence in the group.”

Other than strength staff members and academic personnel, no athletic department staff members can be in contact with the players during the summer, leaving Davis in charge of organized team events.

The workouts in the past few months have been instrumental in building team chemistry, Davis said, especially events like “midnight madness” at the beginning of the summer where the team worked out and “solved challenges” together in the middle of the night.

“They figured out answers together and completed things a whole unit,” Davis said. “I felt that was the time where there was a significant change and it was pretty neat to see them grow.”

The daily workouts are helping the team bond, too, Anzevino said.

“We’ve been working out every morning,” he said. “Lifting, conditioning, basically trying to just build team unity.”

When the Flashes line up in the fall, Davis said fans will see “a team that will fight for four-plus quarters. You’re going to see a team that genuinely cares about each other, that comes out on the field together and leaves the field together. From what I’ve seen over the last seven months, you’re going to see a team that’s going to be able to hold it’s own and is really together.”

Anzevino expects big things too.

“I want to win the MAC championship and go to a bowl game, and just play the best that I can every single play and bring the team together,” he said. “I just want us all to be together at Ford Field (the site of the conference championship game).”

Contact Summer Kent Stater Doug Brown at [email protected].