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First and Tech: High school teams embrace new technology

Batavia High School football player Connor McKeehan looks over game tape from their game against Glenbard North last year using the Hudl software.
Batavia High School football player Connor McKeehan looks over game tape from their game against Glenbard North last year using the Hudl software.

Most high school football players spend their Friday nights yearning to clear or find open space.

Their coaches joined the quest a few seasons ago.

Navigating press boxes filled with headphoned assistants or coaches’ living rooms where WAG – that’s wifi after the game – is prime currency may not sound like trench warfare, but it can be. Technology’s foothold on football makes it so.

These days, someone hears “huddle” and reasonably confuses it with its neo-homonym, Hudl, the video software at the center of the tech craze. Athletes can watch film on next week’s opponent while winding down from the game they just played, all while team Twitter or mobile alerts inform them of even the slightest schedule change.

“To say that we use technology would be an understatement,” first-year St. Charles North coach Rob Pomazak said. “Our chalk talks are all digital, to be honest with you.”

A majority of Chronicle-area coaches grin about the tools and information at their disposal, which creates more time to game-plan with their own staffs.

In most cases, the after-hours road trips on playoff pairings Saturday and all subsequent rounds of the postseason are extinct.

“The 1 a.m. in that seedy parking lot of the Jewel or something like that in the back alley is no more,” Geneva coach Rob Wicinski said. “I miss those guys.”

Hudl, based in Lincoln, Neb., and founded in 2006, is at the forefront of the time-saving video editing software movement, especially after acquiring forerunner APEX in June 2012.

An online subscription service aimed at youth, club, high school, college and even professional teams, Hudl offers high school and college packages ranging from $800 to $3,000 annually for one sport and $1,600 to $6,000 for three sports or more.

Each option includes unlimited game video, unlimited coach and player accounts, video exchange capabilities and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. technical support – a seldom-used feature lately as Hudl makes advances.

“I feel like it’s faster than it used to be. It’s a bit more responsive,” Batavia senior offensive lineman Connor McKeehan said. “It used to be a little glitchy sometimes. It would kind of feel a little funny. Seems pretty smooth this year.”

When wrapped into one, Hudl proves a definite time-saver, and is more universally available than distributing multiple CDs.

Players often pore over their home computers or, less frequently, their phones in the evening. Some programs give “homework” of daily or weekly viewing quotas that coaches can monitor from their accounts, but it seldom feels like a chore given the tech-minded makeup of today’s teens.

“It just helps out a lot more than having people walk through it because our team, we can’t run the same stuff as another team because we don’t know what they’re doing,” Kaneland senior two-way lineman Justin Diddell said. “But on film, you can see how fast their tempo is, what they’re wanting to run and all that.”

McKeehan, whose Bulldogs were once rumored to be playing Kaneland this season, wouldn’t have tangled with Diddell on that point.

“It really helps a lot with the flow of practice, and it also makes it a lot easier for us to communicate with coaches, especially on Friday nights since we’ve seen it before,” McKeehan said. “And that way, if there’s a difference when they line up against us, or if it’s the same, we can let them know.”

Once a trickle-down tool passed from night-owl coaches to players, film study transformed into a team-wide activity within recent seasons thanks to increased accessibility.

Kaneland often begins practices watching film in the computer lab, as much of coach Tom Fedderly’s staff commutes from work outside the school.

Batavia started Sunday film days this month, including an evening team session at the school’s fieldhouse to open preparation for Friday’s season-opening opponent, Glenbard North. This past Sunday, the team scheduled a “Hudl Day,” in which all players were required to study film for 90 minutes from home.

Coaches don’t need quite that long to upload film after practices or games. Depending on the bandwith of the wireless signal or whether film has high-definition viewing capability, the process typically ranges from 15 to 20 minutes, Batavia assistant coach Adam Kolowski said.

Other variables include how many camera angles are being spliced in.

At North, assistant Justin Brennan, a defensive coordinator with the freshman program, proves especially tech-savvy with his background as an electrical engineer. But all extra eyes and devices are appreciated in the crunch to upload footage as quickly as possible.

That even holds true on game night.

“We’re installing our game so we can get our tendencies,” Pomazak said. “We’re self-scouting ourself.”

The upload process is only the beginning. Once it’s completed, coaches are free to play mad scientist or John Madden to their heart’s content.

With a simple mouse click or keystroke, coaches circle points of emphasis, insert individual player notes, create personalized playbooks and more. Tape can be categorized under several fields, including down, distance, hashmark and offensive and defensive formation.

Marmion coach Dan Thorpe’s favorite? Plays after turnover.

Players embrace the video-heavy culture and often double as their own film critics.

“The kids love it. And it means something to them, so they are watching it,” St. Charles East coach Mike Fields said. “They’ll come in [saying], ‘Coach, my steps were wrong on this, I watched it last night.’ “

Of course, technology doesn’t only work inwardly. Social media lends itself to digital trash talk between players during game week, and has become a bigger point of emphasis for coaches and athletic directors.

“It’s not a private matter anymore once they put it on a social media site,” Marmion athletic director Joe Chivari said.

Traditional media coverage allows athletes to spread their profiles by emailing story links or retweeting reports of their accomplishments.

Naturally, Hudl accommodates self-promotion, too, allowing players to compile and send highlight clips to potential recruiters.

There’s infinite space on the Internet. The page might just take a moment to load.

• Jay Schwab contributed to this report.

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