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Just Keep Clicking

Comprehensive Computer Programs, Video Games and the Internet Are Enhancing X's and O's

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2004; Page J01

A cardboard box filled with cleats sits in one corner. It's next to a box brimming with chin straps, which is next to another overflowing with videotapes. It seems like typical high school football coach clutter in Kenny Lucas's office at Gonzaga. But look again.

On a stand across the room there is a blue electronics component connected to a keyboard and monitor. A few feet away, there's a sleek new personal computer and a handheld personal data assistant, or PDA. All of the devices are loaded with football-specific software.

When Theodore Roosevelt Coach Daryl Tilghman watches football video games, he literally sees his team. Tilghman tinkered with a popular video game to add his program's offensive plays so players could learn visually. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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High-tech gear is "not going to win games for you," Lucas said, pointing at the blue device, a Landro play analyzer. "But it gives you a clue. It helps us catch onto the other teams' tendencies, and helps us catch our own."

From digital play analyzers in the coach's office and digital video cameras on the sidelines to PCs in the weight room and Sony PlayStation 2s in the locker room, technology is changing the way high school coaches and players prepare for games. Many said it's not only focusing their preparation, it's also helping raise the level of play.

New equipment is replacing the VHS recorder, making handwritten playbooks and scouting reports obsolete. In some parts of Fairfax County, in fact, high-tech gear may soon eliminate a tradition that has been part of the high school game for years: the Saturday morning tape exchange. Coaches in the AAA Concorde District instead might swap game video via a secure Web site this season.

Similar, yet vastly more complicated and expensive equipment has been used in professional and college football for more than a decade. But falling prices and increased competition at the high school level have prompted coaches to go high tech in recent years. Although football-specific computer programs have been used at Episcopal and Georgetown Prep, among others, for years, area coaches said it's now an area-wide trend.

More than 50 schools in the Washington area -- and more than 400 nationwide -- have purchased the Landro play analyzer. At $5,000 -- a large sum even for athletic departments with large budgets -- it remains out of reach for some schools. But after a short demonstration by Lucas, it's easy to see why athletic departments from Bishop McNamara to Centreville have been so eager to acquire it.

Lucas punched a few keys and brought up replays of every third down Gonzaga's defense faced against DeMatha the previous year. A few more clicks and Gonzaga running back Joe Taylor's carries -- all of them from the previous season -- appear on the screen. And Lucas can sort them by the hole he ran through, the defensive formation, the length of run and more.

"I don't want anyone else to get the darn thing," Madison Coach Gordon Lieb said of the Landro, which his school purchased last year.

At DeMatha, running back Jordan Scott used Landro to make his own highlight video for college recruiters. It took him a half hour, a fraction of the time it would have taken him using a VCR.

Dunbar is among 100 high schools nationally that received, for free, Proscout Video's Indexing and Training Software through a program sponsored by the NFL and the NFL Players Association. The software, which is loaded onto a PC, helps coaches analyze and break down film from opposing teams as well as create highlight tapes for their own players, much like the Landro. Dunbar Coach Craig Jefferies said he plans to use the system to self-scout his own team by looking for his play-calling tendencies.

"We're still trying to figure out all the things that it can do," Jefferies said. "But we're first going to start off charting our tendencies -- where we have some success doing what. It does a lot."

The high-tech revolution doesn't stop in the coach's office.

As players enter the weight room at Madison, they sit down at a PC and log into a program called "Bigger Faster Stronger," which tracks and customizes their weight training based on previous workouts, time of year and other data about the player.

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