Every year, eighth-grade baby birds from the El Campo Middle School system graduate and move on to high school where they continue their journey to becoming varsity Ricebirds.
For St. Philip Pioneers who also feed into the high school, it’s a little bit different. After years of wearing blue and white, for the first time they will get to wear the red and white of the Ricebirds.
The journey El Campo Middle School athletes have been on for two-years is just now starting for former Pioneer football players.
“It was a little bit intimidating (as a freshman),” incoming sophomore and former Pioneer Jack Dorotik said. “But as the year went on I became comfortable.”
To ease the transition from St. Philips to El Campo, the Pioneers’ take advantage of the Ricebird summer workouts.
“I think we were prepared physically for all the stuff up here and we kept up with everybody,” incoming sophomore and former Pioneer Braden Amestoy said. “We worked out (during the summer) to get in shape first.”
During the hot and humid late afternoons throughout the summer this year, the incoming ninth grade Pioneers stand on the Ricebird field as part of the El Campo football family for the first time. The Pioneers get to work alongside the El Campo Middle School and high school athletes that they will be playing with during the upcoming season.
The plight for the Pioneers is to try and get noticed. While many are still a couple of years away from the varsity roster, this is the first time coaches will get to see them on the football field doing anything.
“It is harder because you want to be better and you want to stand out in front of the coaches,” former Pioneer and incoming freshman Colby Williams said.
At the workouts, the incoming freshmen Pioneers along with the incoming freshmen baby birds are mixed in with Ricebird sophomores, juniors and seniors and everybody runs through the same drills.
The competition level for the Pioneers is different from what they are accustomed to. The Pioneers have a much smaller school, so they don’t have the same experience fighting for a place on the team that an athlete from the El Campo Middle School might have.
At the El Campo Middle School, they have a 100 plus athletes come out each year and enough bodies for two teams for both grade levels.
“At St. Philips, once you hit eighth grade you’ve basically got a guaranteed starting position because we just didn’t have a lot of players,” Dorotik said. “When you get here there is a lot more competition.”
The Pioneers numbers are dwarfed by El Campo Middle School students so summer workouts are important. Pioneers come out to try and show themselves and get familiar with potential new teammates.
Carter Hlavinka who is a sophomore and former Pioneer football player, came to the summer workouts before his freshmen year. Hlavinka, like most of St. Philip football players, worked out alongside the El Campo students to get a jump start on fitting in.
“I came to 5:30 p.m. workouts for about three or four weeks before football started,” Hlavinka said thinking back to freshmen year. “So I had introduced myself to everyone and knew everyone once football season had started.”
For the Pioneers, the size of the El Campo football team is the biggest thing they have to overcome, and the workouts are a way to start getting used to it before school starts.
“Those St. Philips kids do a great job of getting here during the summer especially going into their freshman year,” El Campo Athletic Director Wayne Condra said.
Once the Pioneers get used to the bigger size of the football team, they have to learn a new system when they first switch over.
The El Campo Middle School is the biggest pipeline of future Ricebirds, so they spend the first two years learning plays and schemes that the high school is running, just on a smaller scale. When the middle school football players get into high school, Condra already knows what he’s getting from them to some extent. The Pioneers have no built-in advantage. They run a different system and use different terminology.
While the differences between the two schools might seem vast because the El Campo Middle School has a two-year head start, it’s not.
“(Pioneers) get some great coaching, they learn a lot on the football end of it,” Condra said. “The difference for those kids coming in as freshmen, the numbers is one thing and the competition that you face. Where you really see the big change for those kids is the offseason program with the weights.”
St. Philips does not have a mandatory weight lifting program. The El Campo Middle School students do lift weights.
On the football field, the freshmen who were at El Campo Middle School will still run plays they haven’t seen before, Condra said. Football players keep getting plays and schemes added to their plate throughout their high school career.
“There is going to be an advantage because the kids coming from the middle school know the terminology and they know the plays, Condra said. “The thing about it is when you put those pads on it’s you against him and that’s the bottom line.”
While St. Philips athletes might have a little catching up to do, it isn’t something that holds them back.
Over the years, many former Pioneers have contributed to the varsity team. This year the varsity Ricebirds will have six seniors who played for the Pioneers. Conner Williams and Tanner Oldag who are part of that six seniors of former Pioneers, also contributed to last season’s team as juniors.
“When it gets down to it, you’re going to put pads on. You’re going to block, you’re going to tackle and those are the keys to a football game,” Condra said.
Both the blue and white and the red and white eighth-graders of El Campo last season are becoming Ricebirds this year.
St. Philips last season lost zero games and finished the season undefeated District champions. They will now be mixing in with El Campo Middle School football players who also finished the season, both A-team and B-team as undefeated District champions.