To understand the Fort Cherry High School football team’s new weight-training program, look no further than sophomore running back Garrett Whalen.
After playing this season at 160 pounds, Whalen, in just four months, has added 27 pounds to his 5-10 frame.
His squat and deadlift have increased more than 200 pounds, his bench press another 40.
“Nobody has not made a gain,” Whalen said. “And that’s going to help us as a team.”
As successful as the Fort Cherry football program has been – think Marvin Lewis, Marty Schottenheimer, Mike Vernillo, the Garry Legacy – the Rangers, believe it or not, had never employed much of an organized, offseason lifting program.
Until Ken Schulz arrived, anyway.
Schulz, who grew up in Canonsburg and lifted competitively out of the old Prince’s Gym in the early 1990s, took over the offseason program in November.
He designed three separate workouts running from 10-14 weeks that end June 1, just in time for summer conditioning. He installed speakers in the ceiling. He began charting players’ progress himself – so everybody’s accountable. He even ties leg wraps for them and serves as an in-your-face motivator.
Though for the first three weeks of the program, Schulz shunned weights. He taught players proper form using only the bar.
“You’re dealing with a rural community,” Schulz said. “You have kids working on farms. You have kids working in the yard with their dads.
“They’re getting strong. They just didn’t know how to use it to their advantage.”
‘We weren’t really doing anything’
Lifting at Fort Cherry has always existed, but it was mostly restricted to a select group, almost a secret club; 2011-12 seniors Tanner and Corey Garry, as well as Greg Kumer, lifted mostly by themselves, the younger kids unable to do much else but watch.
“We were intimidated by the weights they could lift,” said Whalen, who’s actually Tanner and Corey’s cousin. “We thought, ‘These kids are freaks.’ We saw Corey deadlifting four plates, Tanner was doing at least three. We just stuck to the machines in the middle; we weren’t really doing anything.”
Workouts before were generally held after school: come in when you could, scribble down some weights on a sheet of paper, go home for the night.
Now, Fort Cherry’s players operate out of a binder that Schulz created, complete with spreadsheets, dietary guidelines, a schedule and several other goodies that only a weightlifting nut would think to include. They also now lift at night – most after practicing for other sports.
“The fact that we have a structured system and someone to coach us though it, that we’re not just coming down here by ourselves, has helped a lot,” said junior tight end Zak Dysert. “That has changed our attitude toward it.”
But that’s not all Schulz, who works full-time for Cintas in Bridgeville and only started as an assistant with the program this past fall, has contributed.
Schulz and another assistant, Russ Dysert, launched a fundraiser called “Old Metal For New Iron,” the point being to gather old, unwanted scrap metal and sell it for cash. Players do the legwork and find the metal. Schulz and Dysert make “runs” on Saturday, picking up and cashing in.
“We’re trying to raise the money to get these kids what they need to stay competitive,” Russ Dysert said. “We know budgets are tight. School boards are hesitant to throw around cash. With boosters, you have to get approval from everyone. But we want to get the process started.”
Dysert’s ultimate goal is a four-way neck machine.
“I know they’re a couple thousand bucks, but preventing injuries, with the increased focus on concussions and spinal problems, that’s what we’re trying to get to,” Dysert said. “Hey, anybody who has scrap … we’ll come by and get it.”
So far the program has raised about $500, which has helped pay for chalk, a chalk bowl, belts, bands and legwraps.
Not, Schulz will tell you, mirrors.
There’s one mirror in Fort Cherry’s weight room, but it only exists because Schulz hasn’t figured out how to take it down outside of using a sledgehammer.
“It’s a dungeon,” Schulz said. “But we don’t want mirrors everywhere. We don’t want polished floors. We have right here what we need to get to the next level.
“We’re not here to body-build. We’re not here to see how good we look. We know we look good. We tell each other that all the time.”
We won’t get fooled again
Fort Cherry turned to this program, in part, out of necessity. Thrust into the WPIAL Class A Black Hills Conference, alongside teams such as Clairton, Bishop Canevin and Monessen, the Rangers stumbled their way last fall to a 3-6 record, a set of numbers usually in seen the other way around at this football-crazy school.
Worst of all, Fort Cherry wasn’t just beaten; the Rangers, outscored 306-145 on the year, were getting physically pushed around by opponents.
“Those guys were in the weight room all the time, and they knew how to lift,” first-year coach Jim Shiel said of Corey Garry, Tanner Garry and Kumer. “This past year’s seniors, with the exception of maybe Tyreke Brown, there wasn’t anyone who really saw the field. It was kind of the same thing in the weight room.
“Corey, Greg … those guys would be doing all the work, and the other guys would be standing around watching, not getting anything done. That group left, and we were left with a group that hadn’t done any work in the weight room.”
They’re working now, though.
Nearly two weeks ago, 10 Fort Cherry football players competed at the Midwestern Athletic Conference weightlifting championships at Blackhawk High School. Fort Cherry was the only Washington or Greene County team there.
Though the Rangers did not place, several positive results demonstrated how far they’ve come.
Junior John Findling deadlifted 550 pounds to tied for the sixth-best mark out of 176 lifters. His bench press of 285 pounds was ninth-best. Classmate Chris Batove benched 280 pounds for No. 10 mark.
But the biggest results aren’t quantifiable by numbers. This past Saturday morning, nearly two dozen players and coaches packed into Fort Cherry’s dungeon for max-out day – one repetition, as much weight as possible.
When Brandon McGurk squatted 545 pounds, not only did the bar bend – another goal for Schulz is to buy better bars – but the entire group huddled around McGurk, cheering him on. Schulz, as he always does, served as a spotter and made sure the form was perfect, wiping the sweat from his forehead and letting out a grunt after McGurk got his target weight.
“The biggest thing I’ve noticed – and it’s not the strength gains, though they’re up there – is what happened to the guys by doing this,” Schulz said. “When they go to a varsity basketball game, there they are; they’re like a heard. They have each other’s backs. I hear them talking all the time down here about homework. It’s amazing.
“There used to be so many different personalities on this team, but lifting has really brought them all together.”