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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The Yokota Panthers don’t suit up and take the field for their Japan Football League season opener until Sept. 3. But in the mind of rising senior running back Chris Roach and his teammates, what better time to prepare than now?

Which is why Roach and other Panthers spent much of April doing a variety of cardiovascular work and now report daily to the weight room to work on muscle tone.

When practice starts, Roach says, it’s better to be in shape than to struggle through two-a-day practices trying to get fit.

Still, spring and summer workouts are strictly informal. Coaches say they may only recommend or suggest workout regimens, not direct them. Workouts differ by school and team. Some team captains even hold spring mini-camps, with coaches there only to observe and evaluate.

Attendance is “an expectation that’s brought in by the kids themselves,” said Yokota coach Tim Pujol. “Nobody is taking roll.”

“There’s a built-in pressure in the States,” Pujol said. “It’s not easy to apply that same expectation to DODDS schools,” where many students work or travel with their families. As to staying in shape, “a lot of them have to be trusted to take care of that on their own.”

But coaches do spell out what they expect players to do to stay in shape over the summer, said Charles Burns of Okinawa’s Kubasaki Shogun.

“You’re on your own, but you need to report in shape,” he said. “The season isn’t long enough to afford the luxury of spending four weeks getting in shape.”

Roach said there’s no question Yokota players need the conditioning to maintain their run of success — the Panthers have won 39 straight games and five straight Japan League titles.

“In our minds, it’s mandatory,” he said, adding that Pujol and assistants Matt Grant and Joe Howell “encourage us, make us feel that if we do this, we’ll have a winning season.”

“Doing this” included running during April, with distances ranging from short sprints to mile runs. On May 12, players began to hit the weight room, exercising different muscles on different days.

But sometimes, just air-conditioned gym workouts aren’t enough, Burns said.

“Going through two-a-day practices … it’s tough. … But if you’ve been out in the heat and are used to it, you have the edge.”

And spring workouts can provide another benefit: attracting new players to a program. Taegu American in South Korea had no spring workout last year; coach Sam Alsup had to scramble last fall just to field a team. But this spring, he had workouts — and up to 17 students came out.

Though his Nile C. Kinnick Red Devils have spent the past five years gazing up at Yokota in the standings, coach Robert Stovall says similar regimens — plus the addition of Brenden and Leonard Lynce — helped his team improve from 2-8 two seasons ago to 7-3 in 2003.

Informal workouts have helped “tremendously,” he says, and points to two-way star Richie Korth as an example.

“He’s an example of a kid who works hard off-season and it made a big difference in his strength and skill,” Stovall said.

Health and safety also come into play, one DODDS assistant district superintendent said.

“Every coach wants their kids to be in as best shape as possible,” said Dennis Rozzi, assistant district superintendent in DODDS-Korea’s district office. “Working out on their own, that’s good physical fitness.”

The proof will come out in the wash on the first day of two-a-day practices, which begin Aug. 16.

“It puts us ahead,” Roach said. “We’d be two weeks behind just to get our bodies in condition” without summer workouts.

Sample workouts ...

A sampling of spring and summer high school football workouts for DODDS-Pacific teams:

Zama American — Spring workouts scheduled through May 28, to be conducted by team captains and adult volunteer coaches in the community, with practices to be conducted by team captains during the summer. Coach Ron Geist, entering his third season, says he hopes this is the time the team captains will organize weightlifting groups for the summer.

Nile C. Kinnick — Brief spring workout, four days for players in grades 9 through 11 and nine days for incoming freshmen, according to coach Robert Stovall. The sessions will focus on conditioning, weights, basic formations and responsibilities, Stovall said. Navy Morale, Welfare and Recreation plans an eight-week weight course for summer months, “an encouraged class for all planning on playing football.” Team captains will run informal daily workouts and running groups over the summer months.

Kadena Buccaneers-Islanders — Combined spring workouts scheduled over two weeks in May. Weight training and exercise to continue into summer. Coaches expect players to return for formal practice able to run a mile in under 7 minutes for linemen and 6½ minutes for backs. Weight program includes being able to bench press 1½ times their weight and dead lift two times their weight at the start.

Seoul American — Spring workouts until the end of May, under supervision of community adult volunteers. First week devoted to flexibility, second week to conditioning, third week to strength; will mix all three until end of May, according to coach Julian Harden. Group of players called the “Breakfast Club” meets for weightlifting workouts from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., conducted by team captains. Harden hopes such workouts continue through summer “and that the team runs it themselves.”

Taegu American — Conditioning workouts five days a week through the end of May, including weightlifting two days and three days of running, sprinting and running pass patterns. Community volunteers offer to oversee much of the workouts, “but other than that, it’s the players themselves,” coach Sam Alsup said.

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