Christopher Wuensch, CWuensch@ExplorerNews.com
Nov. 30, 2005 - Rob Lawson sits in his truck outside the baseball field at Catalina Foothills High School with a hood pulled over his head to keep warm on the cold and gray November morning.
Gathering teammates in the parking lot attempting to beat the thaw moments after sunrise, can hear a garbled version of Citizen King's pop hit "I've seen better days" resonating from within Lawson's truck.
For Lawson and the Foothills baseball team, chilly morning workouts in late fall - while most of the country's high school baseball teams are dormant - will have both players and coaches singing the praises of better days come the warmer months when the new season begins.
Baseball is still three months away and tomorrow is Thanksgiving, but that doesn't prevent 21 players, freshman to seniors, from attending the back-breaking workouts known throughout Foothills' baseball lore as IronCon.
"It's getting harder and darker," Lawson, a junior right-handed pitcher, said about the workouts and mornings respectively. "If that's what it takes to win games, I think we're in better shape than most teams."
Since 1995, its first year as a program, the Falcons have compiled 256 wins against only 75 losses. Averaging a little less than 24 wins a year for more than a decade doesn't just require talent, it calls for strict discipline and intense dedication on the part of the entire program.
Most importantly, it requires that everyone stays healthy. That's where the IronCon comes in to play.
The grueling workout focuses on the two must-haves of baseball: strength and speed. The program starts Oct. 1 and continues through the remainder of the calendar year. During the 10-week session - give or take time off for holidays, winter breaks and Sundays - players will work six days a week with coaches on a seven-tier program of running and weight-lifting.
"I don't think there is another team in the country that puts in this much work in the off-season," said Falcons' strength and conditioning coach Todd Judge, the creator of the IronCon.
The original version of IronCon was started 11 years ago by Jason Hissey, who, up until the summer, was the only head coach the program had ever known. Hissey's vision was to create an intense off-season regimen designed to keep his players thinking baseball while the rest of the nation turned its focus toward football and basketball.
Judge, owner of two area personal training studios - Pusch Ridge Fit and Fit at the River - joined an already successful Foothills program four years ago and revamped the IronCon program, turning it into what it is today. The Falcons have finished first in its region every year since.
Of the 48 players in the program, 41 of them are taking part in this year's IronCon, which gets its name by shortening Falcon to Con.
Arizona Interscholastic Association rules forbid coaches to work with their teams during the off-season. A loophole in the AIA rules, however, allows teams to work out as "athletics" as long as the practices aren't sport specific. In other words, the Falcons will never feel the raised laces of a baseball or painful vibration of a ball hit off the end of the bat during the IronCon. But they will get the workout of a lifetime.
"If we didn't do this, we'd have 40 kids doing nothing right now," said Judge.
Thanks to the IronCon, substantial injuries at Foothills have been practically eradicated.
"I've never had (a player suffer) a hamstring injury," said Judge, who works with the squad's catchers, and coaches first base. "We haven't had a single major injury."
Judge runs his players on the track on Mondays and Wednesdays when exercises are geared more toward generating speed and functional warm-ups. The rest of the week is dedicated to the weight room. Players are trusted to run on their own on Fridays. Coaches chart and calculate speeds, pounds and reps at the beginning and the end. The top six players are then crowned as IronCon champions. The prize is a T-shirt and the right to walk the halls among peers with your chin a little higher.
In high school sports, running in practice is often done as punishment rather than for conditioning. That is not the case at Foothills, where the players have embraced the IronCon.
"It's unbelievable," said senior Falcon pitcher Joe Rohe. "It's increasing your room for air. I used to be big and slow, now it's kind of fun."
Players are starting to be rewarded for their hard work, increased strength and most importantly, their speed, which is the one thing college scouts are looking for these days, said Judge.
Senior outfielder Brayden Ashdown recently signed a letter of intent to play for the University of Notre Dame next fall. Last season saw pitchers John James and Dan Butler commit to the University of Arizona and Dartmouth College respectively.
The workouts are strictly voluntary and open to anyone wishing to experience an exercise regimen like none other offered at the school. Among those who have taken Judge up on the offer have been soccer players and even a cross country runner.
On Nov. 23, Bryan Opdyke joined the Falcons for a morning run and watched as, one-by-one, the younger players floundered on the ground from exhaustion. The 2003 Foothills graduate who was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers out of high school and played last year for the Helena Brewers of the Pioneer League, credits the IronCon for molding him into the player he is today.
"It really helped me when I was in high school," said the left-handed catcher, Opdyke. "It was a really good stepping stone to get me to the next level."
Assistant coach J.J. Northam, who has coached with the Falcons for seven years, has even attempted to beat the IronCon. The former UA in-fielder joined his players two years ago to get in baseball shape for a Pittsburgh Pirates fantasy camp and found it to be on par with a college level workout.
Plus, the benefits extend beyond the diamond.
"It allows them to keep in shape," said Northam. "It also allows us to keep in contact with them so we can keep tabs on how they are doing physically, emotionally and academically."
Being surrounded by highly skilled former collegiate athletes certainly helps when it comes to motivation. Assisting Judge is Emmett Perrini, who works the IronCon with the boys and runs a scaled-down version for the Foothills' softball team. Perrini played football for three years at West Virginia University.
With all the coaches around it is easy to forget that Foothills still doesn't have a head coach. The school has yet to name a successor to Hissey, who took a job as an assistant coach at Pima Community College in the summer. But the lack of a skipper hasn't blurred the big picture.
"We've got 30 to 40 kids out here busting their ass during the off-season and they think we're going to fall apart?" said Judge of rumors that the Falcons could suffer without the coach who amassed more than 200 wins in a decade and took his team to three of the last four Class 4A title games.
Whoever is at the helm come February, Foothills baseball figures to be user-friendly. It's all part of a process where coaches are working with their players yearround, said Northam.
The high school season is February to May, and is followed by the summer coach's league (which by no coincidence was won this summer by Foothills). The only months away from baseball are January and September. During those months, coaches urge players to hit and field on their own, which most of them actually do.
"Some guys are bridging the gap between the summer season and IronCon to be in shape for IronCon," said Northam, who compared them to Major Leaguers who no longer use spring training to get in shape.
To narrow the gap between coaches and players, Northam and the coaching staff begin working with teams of Foothills area players when they are competing on the lower levels. This year's senior class, in particular, is a special one to the Falcon coaches. It's the first class they've worked with since the players were 12 years old.
Perhaps this will be the year one of the most dominant programs in Arizona wins that elusive state title. If they do, players can look back on all those mornings huddled in their cars, waiting for the sun to rise and surely they will think: These are the better days.