More than 30 Aquinas football players tried to catch their breath as they trained their eyes toward coach Matt LeZotte one day this week.
They had just wrapped up their second day of spring football practice, in pads for the first time in more than six months.
"This is the best two days of spring practice we've had ... since I've been here," said the school's new coach, searching for the right words to motivate his players to continue working hard even though their rewards were months away.
Football coaches across the area this month have faced the difficult task of evaluating what improvement their teams have made in a compact, two-week window.
Spring practice either began, ended or did both this month for most area teams. Aquinas was one of the last area Georgia teams to complete its workouts, which lasted a week. Schools in South Carolina usually run spring practice later in the season because state association rules allow them to take up to 10 days of practice between the last 30 days and the first two weeks after the closing of school.
Spring practices can be tedious exercises, coaches say. For example, they must take the time to distribute equipment, just like they do before each fall season, but it is only being distributed for 10 days.
Although the real results won't be known for 100 or so days -- Georgia schools open their seasons Aug. 28; South Carolina schools can begin as early as Aug. 20 -- coaches measure the effectiveness of spring practice in different ways.
Richmond Academy coach Chris Hughes said he gauged the success of spring based on participation. In what he called a "big turnout," the Musketeers had 65 players stay throughout the spring. That was the most kids the school has had at a spring workout in Hughes' three springs as coach, he said.
"We looked good," said Hughes, whose team wrapped up spring practice with a scrimmage May 8. "One good thing that it does is gets everybody back out there. You're able to get back in the groove for a little bit."
Coaches say the best part about spring practice is being able to teach without worrying about losses or exhaustion plummeting team morale. They are better able to correct mistakes and reward successes.
"We trying to breathe optimism into these guys," LeZotte said. "It's our job as coaches to stay optimistic. We won't know anything until we stop in the field for the first game. We're throwing a lot at them and seeing what they can absorb, and it will be more building blocks this summer."
JULY 31 First day South Carolina can practice
AUG. 1 First day Georgia can practice
AUG. 20 Week 0 for South Carolina
AUG. 28 First day of games for Georgia
WILDCATS' STREAK: Laney has made the playoffs the past nine seasons. One of the area's more remarkable runs will certainly be tested this fall, with such a young team playing in loaded Region 3-AA.
TALENT WATCH: The area's leaders in passing (Burke County's Terrell Brigham), receiving (North Augusta's Matt Hazel) and total offense (Jefferson County's B.J. Bostic) all return in what should be a huge year for individual talent. Bostic, a national top-100 recruit, according to Sporting News, leads what could be a double-digit Division I-A signing year for the area.
GETTING THERE: All five Class AA, AAA or AAAA teams in Aiken County made the playoffs, where they combined to win three games. All of them will be shooting for a deeper runs this fall.
REGION 7-A SHAKEUP: Three area teams in the region (Aquinas, Warren County, Washington-Wilkes) will have new coaches, which could shake up the playoff order behind Larry Campbell's latest Lincoln County team.
REGION 3-AAAA RELOADS: Evans, undefeated a year ago, will return most of its offense, including region player of the year Jonathan Finch. Richmond Academy, a playoff team last year, could be its biggest challenger even though it is not even a year removed from a 17-game losing streak.