Prep sports teams are living in the age of technology

Greg Spahn remembers the old way high school football teams used to exchange game film. How could the Grand Rapids coach forget? Saturday morning. A rest stop or gas station halfway between two towns. Swapping a VHS tape with another unfortunate ...

Clint Austin / Aundrey Tran of the Proctor football team uses an iPad to record plays during a practice at the school Friday. Using different forms of technology is becoming commonplace in high school athletics.

Greg Spahn remembers the old way high school football teams used to exchange game film.

How could the Grand Rapids coach forget?

Saturday morning. A rest stop or gas station halfway between two towns. Swapping a VHS tape with another unfortunate soul representing an upcoming opponent.

“You’re sitting there waiting for somebody, not knowing who’s going to come and what they look like. ‘I’ll be wearing the red hat parked at Kwik Trip,’ ” Spahn said recently. “Those days are gone.”

It’s hard to believe they ever existed, that coaches connected multiple VCRs to make a copy of their game tape, then drove hours for the dropoff, which must have felt like a covert operation. That’s a lot of work for grainy mazes of static lines.


It was a necessity. Film had to be studied and picked apart. Proctor coach Derek Parendo said he and his staff would spend four hours together on Sunday, plus an extra two hours Monday, reviewing video of both the Rails’ latest contest and next foe. Now, Parendo - like most of his cohorts - starts that process early Saturday.

He’ll grab his iPad and steal a couple hours while the previous night’s game is fresh. On Sundays he’s back at it, but with the iPad connected to his 52-inch TV. Parendo’s assistants are simultaneously watching, and everyone relays their observations in text messages. Game plans take shape.

It’s a virtual meeting. And a literal time-saver.

The games, they are a-changin’. We have technology to thank for that.

For so many coaches who rely heavily on video, their technology fulcrum isn’t Silicon Valley but rather Lincoln, Neb., home of industry giant Hudl. Specializing in video review, while offering countless more performance-analysis products, Hudl is used by 15,700 prep football programs nationwide, according to an email from the company. Across its four “core” sports - football, basketball, soccer and volleyball - 86,000 prep teams are registered.

Indeed, high school coaches have expanding technological toolboxes at their disposal. Advances have fundamentally altered the way they operate.

“There are all kinds of avenues and ways that technology has impacted the sport,” Duluth Marshall boys hockey coach Brendan Flaherty said. “I think if you don’t embrace it, you fall behind.”

The goal, of course, is to stay ahead, push the envelope. Northland teams are doing just that.


Video: No game Spahn’s Thunderhawks take their video seriously. On game nights, they employ two Sony Handycams that sync with an app called echo1612. From an iPad on the sideline, the app is launched and replay is instantly available. That’s some millennial stuff. So is what comes next.

The iPad connects to a flat-screen TV positioned under a tent, also on the sideline. Players and coaches are able to watch high-definition replays to determine what went wrong and what went right. When the offense goes three-and-out, Spahn can herd the unit to the tent for a quick review. Superior’s football team has a comparable setup.

Footage isn’t restricted to field level at Grand Rapids. Spahn again plans to deploy a drone during select practices this fall. He appreciates the eye-in-the-sky vantage point, with players resembling moving “chess pieces.” Routes and angles are easier to evaluate. The drone and its affixed camera are controlled from a smartphone.

Grand Rapids, like Proctor and others, also utilizes end-zone cameras. Another angle, another flaw detected and corrected.

Most coaches agree video and its myriad applications have had the biggest impact. Spahn’s Hudl package allows him to send in game film and have it dissected and returned within 24 hours. Rather than labor on data entry, coaches can focus on strategy.

“It makes you a lot more efficient,” Spahn said. “The idea for film is that it makes your job easier, but I think it forces you to be a better coach.”

Instead of a vague “you got beat,” Spahn can slow down a replay and tell his player, “That guy stepped with his right foot, so you need to be here.”

Parendo underscored the convenience factor with an example of watching his daughter’s basketball team in the Twin Cities on a Sunday. Between games or during timeouts he could squeeze in some studying.


All it takes is Wi-Fi and video is accessible - for coaches and players, who typically are expected to watch on their own.

“I don’t know if teachers are real fond of that,” Parendo joked.

Hermantown boys basketball coach Andy Fenske uses a video service called Krossover. With it, the Hawks can group film by similar clips. They might want to view, say, every successful 3-point attempt in search of tendencies.

Likewise, Flaherty is intrigued by VidSwap, in which others would scrutinize Marshall’s film and return it as requested - only breakouts, only power plays, etc. The Hilltoppers currently subscribe to Hudl.

Proctor baseball coach Kyle Wojtysiak likes the Hudl Technique slow-motion video-analysis app. With an iPad, he records the Rails swinging or throwing, then examines the video and takes notes. Players are presented both and adjust their mechanics accordingly.

“For me, visualization is a big learning tool for players,” Wojtysiak wrote in an email.

The proliferation of video has given athletes additional advantages over their predecessors. Namely, simplified recruiting. Highlight packages and online profiles are shared with, and searched by, college coaches. No more mass-mailing tapes or discs.

Go to the Hudl profile belonging to heavily recruited Proctor defensive lineman Kaleb Stevens, for example, and you’re immediately staring at his personal highlights. The page also lists Stevens’ position, height and weight, plus his bench press, squat and deadlift capacity.


Gadgets and gizmos At Cloquet, the volleyball team was greeted by a new device as practice commenced last week. VERT, “wearable athletic technology,” will measure how many times a Lumberjack jumps in an allotted period, the player’s max jump, last jump and average jump height. Coach Heidi Anderson said the gadget, clipped to a waistband or secured inside a harness worn around the midsection, syncs via Bluetooth to her iPhone, providing real-time results.

The feedback leads to straightforward assessment. If a hitter boasts a 25-inch vertical but is only jumping 15 inches, why the discrepancy? There’s also an injury-prevention aspect. Olympic teams and college programs depend on VERT technology to log the number of jumps in an effort to avoid overuse, Anderson said.

The coach also finds value in radar guns, for monitoring serve speeds. The ideal range is 37-42 mph.

With the accessories, she can offer objective critiques. Gray area morphs into black and white.

“Instead of trying to figure out how do I inspire or motivate this kid to hit the ball harder, it just kind of happens,” Anderson said, because they see the irrefutable numbers.

Flaherty put it another way when it comes to watching film with the Hilltoppers: “The tape doesn’t lie.”

This is hardly a comprehensive list. Heck, a Google search of “sports technology” yields about 722,000,000 results. There is something for everyone.

Fenske recently purchased a Dr. Dish shooting machine, as did Duluth East boys coach Rhett McDonald. The machine is comprised of a large encompassing net that extends above the rim and collects both made and missed shot attempts. Basketballs are funneled to the apparatus’ base, from which they are passed to a player at predetermined intervals. Fenske says the average is about four seconds. At that pace, a player could hoist 900 shots per hour.


Other features include a large display for stats; an intensity tracker that registers heart rate; and the ability to program the length and intensity of passes. The model used at Hermantown fires up to 26 feet.

“We’re still learning the hundreds of different things we can do with it,” Fenske said. “Whatever you can conceive of that you want it to do, it’ll find a way to do it.”

Virginia’s football team is experimenting with virtual-reality goggles and virtual-reality images of defenses that are intended to help Blue Devils quarterbacks more quickly identify defensive backs’ positioning and coverage schemes.

This trail of technology led beyond the Northland and to the St. Thomas Academy hockey team. Every Cadet wears a heart-rate monitor during games, and the monitors send data to an iPad, which is observed on the bench by co-coaches Tom and Greg Vannelli. They apply the information to determine optimal times for line changes.

Fans also have benefited from the technological boom. Never before has it been so easy to follow prep events. Options include TV, radio, live streaming, social media and live-scoring websites like Minnesota Hockey Hub. Apps such as Periscope let anyone with a smartphone broadcast video of their surroundings.

Speaking of social media and websites, coaches have welcomed them as communication tools.

At the end of a recent interview, Parendo was asked when the Rails’ schedule would be posted by the Minnesota State High School League. He was unsure, but added, “Our schedule is on our website.” As is just about everything else related to Proctor football - a comprehensive calendar, current and historical stats, downloadable forms, for-sale apparel, photo albums, etc.

Some teams go with TeamSnap, an organizational app that streamlines management of rosters and schedules and sends important updates.


Beware information overload Not every prep coach is all-in on technology.

There are some, like Marshall baseball’s Joe Wicklund, who eschew iPads and slick stat-keeping programs like GameChanger, which bring sabermetrics to the high school level by making reams of statistics available in-game, postgame and throughout the season.

“I think I have exactly what I need to be a coach,” Wicklund said.

Even those who fully embrace technology caution that too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily a good thing. Go overboard, and it can backfire. Video especially.

Flaherty called it paralysis by analysis.

“We take what we like and we reduce those items,” he said. “I think that’s more effective. Focus on the most important 20 percent and spend 80 percent of your time on the 20 percent that you deem most important.”

Grand Rapids’ Spahn says finding a happy medium is crucial - not just with video, but with all these contraptions.

Fitness-monitoring, performance-analysis, digital playbooks, virtual reality … at some point, returns diminish.

“You have to be judicious with it because otherwise you’re just throwing stuff at them, and sometimes you forget that they’re 16, 17 and 18 years old,” Spahn said. “You have to carefully think about how you’re going to use it because you can drown, and you drown quick.”

The challenge, Cloquet’s Anderson said, is figuring out how best to incorporate all the information into practice and game settings.

“With technology, I think it’s only as good as the people using it,” she said.

One other pitfall: money. This stuff isn’t cheap. Parendo said an end-zone camera costs about $2,500. The Dr. Dish device set back Fenske’s team about $6,000. Hudl subscriptions and other video services can run into the thousands of dollars. iPads, cameras, TVs and headsets can get pricey, as well.

“All that technology costs money,” Spahn said. “That’s kind of the underbelly to all this.”

Still, it appears the train has left the station and isn’t coming back. Imagine trading that do-it-all smartphone for an old-school flip phone, or that curved, ultra-HD, smart TV for a bulky box set replete with rabbit ears.


“I don’t think we could ever go back,” Parendo said.

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