Players at the Thornton Youth Football Program participate in tackling drills Thursday night (Sam Bonsey/Journal Tribune)

SACO — The stands at Thornton Academy’s Hill Stadium were peppered with eager families during the evening session of the school’s youth football camp on a warm Thursday night in Saco. 

The high attendance for a practice session at the stadium isn’t uncommon. 

For a community that’s seen its high school team win four Class A state titles over the last seven years, the practices offer a glimpse inside the success of the program. 

“We usually have a pretty good turnout (for the camp),” said Kevin Kezal, the head coach of the Thornton Academy football team and the camp director. “It’s a community that loves football. Saco, Dayton, Arundel, you name it. We get great turnouts at our games a lot of people stick around for practices. It’s a great place to be.”

Kezal, who has coached at Thornton for 20 years, started the youth camp in 2006. His intention of the five-day program is to teach kids the fundamentals of the game and also build pride and continuity within the community. The session had two groups — the school’s middle school team, and players ranging from second through sixth grade.

“We’ve been really fortunate,” Kezal said. “We got 30 eighth-graders and 30 seventh-graders, and a lot of young kids, so our numbers haven’t been a problem.”

The middle school season in already underway. On Thursday night, the second to last day of the program, the middle school squad worked on implementing new plays for the offensive and defensive schemes. Kezal said some of the plays the team worked on will be similar to the ones they’ll see when they get into high school. 

“We have kind of a real, basic playbook that they use,” he said. “As the kids get older, it’ll get a little more complicated and complex, so when they get to the next level they’ll be better prepared.”

The middle school team also worked on basic circuit training, which consisted of throwing and catching the ball, running and tackling. The younger group primarily worked on circuit training. Kezal said that running offensive plays are saved for when they mature up the ranks. The main focus for the young players was hammering home the fundamentals, especially when it came to tackling. 

“We spend a lot of time, with even our older kids, on how to tackle properly,” Kezal said. “Without the head gear, we use a heads up tackling program where we really teach kids how to hit … We don’t do much live tackling anymore, it’s more just pads on pads and teaching them the right way to do it.”

Kezal had the assistance of his high school staff during the camp, as well as former players who often jump at the opportunity to give back. Seeing players he has coached return to lend a hand to the next generation can often be a reality check.

“I’m starting to feel old,” Kezal said. “Some of my former players are parents now and helping out.”

With the success of the high school team, and the overwhelming support of the community, Kezal doesn’t see the camp shutting down any time soon. He also encourages kids who haven’t started playing football yet to participate.

“The good thing about football is that you don’t have to start young,” Kezal said. “You can pick it up a little later. It’s a different game where as you play baseball, basketball, lacrosse, those sports are so skill-driven that you have to play all the time. In football, if you’re an aggressive kid and a good athlete, you can pick it up pretty quick.”


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