This past off-season was a tough one for Richmond Hill football coach Matt LeZotte and his staff.
After missing the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons and failing to win a region game for the first time since 2010 there was a lot of soul searching and self-evaluation which took place.
Richmond Hill coaches looked at every phase of the program in an effort to determine what changes, if any, needed to be made to get things back on the right track.
They also had to look at how to replace playmakers who graduated and took 84 percent of last year’s offense with them along with who were going to be the replacements.
One of the decisions which came out of the planning and discussions was to go back to the basics and focus on a summer program which would be self-contained. Based on what he has seen so far in workouts LeZotte, who is starting his ninth season, is liking what he sees as the Wildcats ready for their second season in rugged Region 1-7A. “We’ve had a productive summer, probably the most productive summer we’ve had here,” LeZotte said after a practice earlier this week. “The coaching staff is fully engaged, fully set and fully present which makes a big difference.
“The attendance of our players has been excellent. We’re averaging 110-120 guys a day. So, the presence of our guys has been significant.”
While the Wildcats still have some outstanding veteran playmakers and leaders in the likes of cornerback/wide receiver/ quarterback Caleb Easterling, offensive lineman Thomas Zimbalatti and wide receiver Nick Bliss the roster includes a lot of players, especially at the skill positions, whose playing time last year was virtually nil.
Quarterbacks Scott Kirk and John Newman are prime examples. Kirk, a junior, completed one of four passes for 24 yards.
Newman, a senior, is nowhere to be found on the stat sheet.
The leading returning rusher is Easterling who picked up his 205 yards from the wildcat position. His primary position is cornerback where he has started for two years.
Teaching is always an important component of coaching high school football but it is playing a bigger role than usual for the Wildcats.
“We’re trying to get better at the small things,” LeZotte said. “That’s always been my fundamental approach to coaching and performance. We’ve got to continue to do better at doing the small things correctly and doing them well.
Our entire focus in the off-season starting back in January in our coaching meetings, our coach-player meetings, our coach-player work on the side was all geared around going back to the basics,” LeZotte said. “It doesn’t matter what they know, what they feel like they can do.
“We’re going to start from scratch and work from there and progress.
Our guys have done a tremendous job.”
This approach also played a role in LeZotte’s decision to eschew doing some of the things the Wildcats have done in the past such as participating in 7-on-7 camps or scrimmages.
“We’re doing it because we can get all the work we need done here (at Wildcats Stadium),” LeZotte said. “Everybody has their own philosophies on all this, how you can get extra work, how you can be competitive.
“We just feel like we can get all the work we need in house and we don’t have to travel around the state to get that done.”
Another advantage, LeZotte said, is that by staying at home he and his staff were able to cut practices to three days a week starting in June. The Wildcats practice Tuesday through Thursday from 7 – 10 a.m.
“Everybody is fresh, ready to go and dialed in,” LeZotte said. “We’ve been able to execute. All around it’s been fantastic. The players are doing a great job.”
Richmond Hill opens its season on Aug. 18 at Effingham County followed by three straight home games against Jenkins, Creekside of St. Johns, Fla., and Coffee County before the region opener at Camden County on Oct. 6.