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August 17. 2014 7:54PM

New challenges in a new school season for Exeter and other NH high schools

Exeter hockey coach Jim Tufts instructs his players vs. Manchester Central at JFK in Manchester Monday, Jan. 23, 2012. (Mark Bolton/UNION LEADER)

It’s the first day of high school practice for soccer, field hockey, volleyball, golf and cross country across the state, and boys’ soccer coach Jim Tufts of Exeter still has the passion.

“This is my 38th season and I still enjoy it,” said Tufts, who has also served 37 years as the school’s head varsity ice hockey coach. “I don’t think of what I do as work. For me, I have fun going to school every day teaching and coaching the kids.”

Tufts said the first day of practice presents different challenges each year. “If you have a veteran team coming back, the goal is to keep them focused and motivated for the new season. If you have a new group of kids coming in, you have to go back to the basics and start from there.”

Tufts said coaching soccer today is different than 40 years ago.

“The game has changed,” he said. “Forty years ago on the first day of practice, I’d begin teaching the kids the skills and concepts of the game. Today with so many youth programs around year ’round, the kids already have the skills when they begin high school practice. This week I start teaching them advance levels of the game. To me the first week is like a puzzle. All the kids bring something to the table and my job is to figure out where the pieces fit best.”

Starting today, figured Tufts, he has about 14 or 15 practices to get ready for the start of the regular season. “We open our season on Aug. 29, giving us about 11 days to get ready,” he said. “We’ll hold double sessions three days this week before teachers report to work Thursday. School starts next Monday for us. Conditioning and skill work go hand in hand in practice leading up to our first game.”

Tufts said 110 kids will report to the team’s practice at Bill Ball Stadium today. “We’ll eventually have four soccer teams this fall,” said Tufts. “We’ll have a varsity team, two junior varsity teams and a freshman team. Playing on turf is a godsend. Speed and quickness are important elements in soccer and the turf field is the perfect surface. They’ll be times this year when we’ll share Ball Stadium with the football or field hockey team. Every team benefits from practicing on the turf.”

Tufts said he enjoys watching his kids grow over a four-year period. “I’ll get a 5-foot-6 freshman this week and hopefully in four years, he’ll blossom into a 6-foot-3 standout senior. That’s the best part of my role as coach: to watch the kids grow and excel to the best of their ability. I never get tired of it.”

Last year the Bedford High girls’ soccer team, under head coach Michelle Winning, captured the Division I state title. Winning said the first week of practice this week will be different than last summer.

“The biggest challenge this season is to keep our girls level-headed,” she said. “We do set team and individual goals and obviously our biggest goal will be to return to the championship game. Having said that, we know we can’t do that this week or this month. So we begin by setting smaller, but important goals. The girls coming back know what it takes to win a state championship. They also know they have to work for it like last year.”

Winning projects 57 players will attend the team’s first practice today. She said her biggest challenge over the next 11 days leading up to the first regular-season game against Manchester Central is to get everyone on the same page.

“During the off-season, we don’t have corps of players playing together,” said Winning. “Many of our girls are playing in different places, under different coaches with different systems. Now I’ve got to mesh them back together to play our system.” Winning is entering her seventh season at the helm. Bedford has qualified for the Division I state title game the last two seasons, finishing runner-up to Exeter in 2012 before knocking off the four-time champion Blue Hawks last fall.

High school football practices in Division I and II began last Wednesday. Division III gridders hit the fields on Wednesday.

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