'We're all fighting to improve' FIST Football Academy trains, provides exposure for state's linemen

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DOWNERS GROVE – After the nearly two-hour training session concluded Sunday, over 30 high school football players ended their huddle with a concluding message.


On Sundays, between 30 and 50 of the state's top-rated recruits on the offensive and defensive line gather at Doerhoefer Park in Downers Grove for two hours of speed, technique and agility drills and repetitions.

Coined either the 'pass-rush or OL crews', the weekly sessions are led by the co-owners of Fist Football Academy – Kevin Sabo, Brian Iossi and Ben Salomon, who are all varsity coaches at Burlington Central High School. The Academy specializes in training those in the trenches.

The sessions have spanned over the past three months and draw recruits from a wide range of high school programs across the state, from communities like Buffalo Grove, Plainfield, Wheaton, St. Charles and even south of Joliet.

"It's not a showcase," Fremd junior defensive lineman Kaleb White said. "People might think that, but it's not. It's a time for us to learn, improve our technique, get better and grow as individuals and as a group.

"We're all from different places and different teams," White continued. "I think it's awesome that we're able to come out here, unite as one and work out. Me, at the end, when I said 'fight'...we're all fighting; we're all fighting to compete. We're all fighting to do better and all fighting to improve."

The sessions, which bring in first-time participants each week, have become an important tool to the participants for potential exposure to collegiate programs given the lack of IHSA-sanctioned football games being played.

"There's a lot of seniors and juniors out here that are looking for scholarship offers – especially seniors – and that's what this whole thing turned into," Iossi said. "[We wanted to bring] enough guys with enough talent in here to get the exposure for college coaches so they can send film to them."

In a sense, this group has become a bit of its own football team outside of their home programs. Through direct message threads and attendance each week, friendships have formed that perhaps would not have been possible in a normal season, given the group's vast in-state geographical reach. Some have even scheduled times to play an online video game together later in the week.

Boston Bower, a sophomore and recently-converted defensive end from Huntley in his second varsity season, has seen the group participation grow from 10 guys dating back to the beginning to nearly 50.

"It's very beneficial. There's lots of good talent all around on offense and defense," Bower said. [It] really pushes me to get better; to make sure I'm with everybody else. If not, try to get past them. It always makes me elevate my game."

The offensive and defensive lineman groups will split into their respective groups for drills. The defensive group, in particular, spends ample time perfecting their pre-snap pass-rush stances, cycling from a stand-up (two-point) down to on both their hands and feet (four-point).

"I really want you thinking about the stance," Salomon instructed during a drill. "The stance you get in determines that ceiling of how successful your snap is going to be."

Later, that group participated in a drill that involved rolling a tennis ball around a garbage can to emulate a quarterback's movement. It promotes instinct growth for a lineman to find a pathway to a possible sack or another big play. Nearby, offensive linemen concentrated on their first step in pass protection.

To end the afternoon, with protective facial masks on, the two positions converged for one-on-one pass-rush drills.

One matchup was between St. Charles North defensive lineman Carmine Bastone, a 6-foot-2, 270-pound standout, and Plainfield East's Zach Barlev, a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign recruit, at 6'4, 292-pounds.

The two traded strong shoves to begin the matchup as Bastone, coming out of a three-point stance, attempted to reach the pocket off the outside of Barlev's right shoulder.

Able to briefly re-anchor his feet, Barlev made a quick recovery before Bastone powered his way inside. With no quarterback, there's no telling if it would've been a sack. Regardless, Barlev ended the rep with a smile and a finger point, perhaps a sign of respect for his fellow opponent.

"Always putting in work," Bastone said. "You got to always keep getting better."