For Jefferson City Jays head football coach Ted LePage, the first part of summer workouts provides an important foundation for the rest of the season.
That's why he challenges his players at a high level early on, hoping they will continue to see the benefits down the road.
Competing against some of the best teams in the midwest at an invitation-only team camp in Bentonville, Ark., has been LePage's go-to move to jump-start Jefferson City's offseason program the past three years, and he continues to see the benefits.
"The camp in Arkansas is interesting because of the caliber of teams that are there," LePage said Tuesday, two days after the Jays returned from the two-day event. "It is such a great opportunity for our players to go down and compete against that level of competition. What we get to do is come back and review film with our players and really point out how little things make a different against great teams."
The other six teams in attendance have resumes worth bragging about.
Bentonville has played in the last four Arkansas state championships and has won two of them. Har-Ber was a playoff team last season, while Fort Smith Northside, the third of those Class 7A schools, features six NCAA Division I recruits.
Jenks (Tulsa, Okla.) is coming off back-to-back state titles in Class 6A, while Tulsa Union has reached the title game in the same big-school division the past two years.
East St. Louis, featuring the No. 4 overall recruit in the nation, rounded out the teams.
"At the end of the day, we don't really compete against any of those teams on a consistent basis," LePage said. "For us, it is a really good format to go down and learn about not only our team, but more about ourselves in general."
The teams from the south, who are alotted 20 practice days in May, were a step ahead of the Jays. After just getting back in the swing of things with a four-day team camp last week, LePage was optimistic about what he saw.
"They were fully installed with their offense and defense," LePage said. "We went down there with our base offense, with our base defense. But what we saw, we were very excited about, schematically. We're very excited personnel-wise. Now we need to address the little things - the steps, the techniques and the fundamentals."
LePage told his players to take note of the size and athleticism of some of the Division I prospects, using two of Bentonville's tight ends, who are both 6-foot-4 and weigh 240 pounds, as prime examples.
"They can get around these other guys and see what their work ethic is," LePage said. "I think that's good any time you can expose your players to more opportunities to be around great players and great teams. You have a better chance of emulating that."
Evidently that inspired the Jays. Since returning from the camp, LePage said he "can count on one hand the number of athletes that have missed" an offseason workout without letting him know in advance.
"It's unbelievable that we're getting that kind of attendance back in our offseason conditioning program," LePage said. "I'm so impressed with our players' desire to really better themselves. They're doing a great job of not only being coachable, but also applying what they've learned."
While the weekend camp was competitive, it's mainly designed for instruction and future evaluation.
"It's competitive and you're out there to do the best you can, but (Bentonville coach Barry Lunney) wants to keep it structurally sound, where we're keeping kids healthy and each coach can coach their team," LePage said. "It's set up to make your players better and make your coaching staff better."
Jefferson City took 74 athletes to Arkansas, going three players deep at each position. That's part of the evaluation process for LePage, who does not have an official depth chart yet.
"There might be someone who we haven't seen, and now all of a sudden we have them on film and they're playing against Tulsa Jenks," LePage said.
When an up-and-comer can make a play against a starter for a program that is the two-time defending state champions, LePage takes notice.
"The competition and the amount of players that we get to get into that competitive situation really helps us evaluate a ton more," LePage said. "You can evaluate yourself against each other only so much."
Jefferson City will have a few contact days during June where coaches and players will spend time working on position-specific drills. That number will increase in July, with official practices starting Aug. 4.
"We've seen more competition now than we've seen in a while and that is why that camp is so important to the start of our summer," he said. "We saw some guys we thought, "Wow, this player is going to be a really, really good player for us.' And then we had somebody else step into that position, and you look at it and go, "That player is pretty good, too.'"