Vongni Yang, The Union Democrat

Fall sports practices at Summerville High School were restricted Thursday and at Tioga, practices are yet to begin due to excess smoke from the Rim Fire.

The Bears cross country, freshmen and junior varsity volleyball practices were canceled completely, and soccer and football sessions were limited.

Varsity head football coach Ben Watson held practices at half-speed without any running or strenuous physical activities.

"It came down from the superintendent that they didn't want us to have high physical exertion because of the smoke," Watson said. "So it's a light practice today."

Football practice resembled an actual in-season Thursday practice with walkthroughs.

"We cut out the conditioning for today," Watson said. "Rather than running through our stuff, we're doing walkthroughs. It's the same stuff, we're just doing it at a slower speed."

With no running, Watson and the Bears were able to focus on breaking down and footwork. Players were put through individual position drills, and Watson was able to teach basic coverages to his defensive backs, including techniques and strategies a player should enforce in Cover 2 and Cover 3 schemes.

Defensive players and linebackers focused on stripping the football from ball carriers in a drill.

Receivers ran routes at a moderate pace and concentrated on catching the ball with their hands. The offensive linemen and running backs worked on the running game, relearning run plays: who to block and which hole a tailback should hit.

One of the setbacks during the controlled practice is conditioning. Watson and the Bears will field a small team this year with little to no experience on the varsity level, at around 23 players or so. That means that most of the athletes will have to play and start both ways, and conditioning is going to play a crucial role during the season.

"We're going to have so many people going both ways," Watson said. "You have to be better conditioned."

Defensive line coach Lee Suggs said that practices were scaled back all week because of the smoke, which may be crippling to the Bears' progress in the preseason.

"It makes it harder because, particularly on the varsity level, we really need them this week to start stepping up - the way they're hitting," he said.

"We should of had two practices this week that were really hard and it (the Rim Fire) started on Monday," he added. "We haven't been going as hard as we would go because of the smoke. It's pretty bad here."

For Ross Whalen, a key returner, the senior linebacker was held out of practice with the team on Thursday due to the bad air quality.

"Ross Whalen, he's not here because he's asthmatic," Suggs said. "He was having trouble at school. You get kids that have a hard time for whatever reason, and they end up with this kind of situation, it makes it 10 times worse. It's definitely an issue and means we don't get to go as hard as we can go. Once this clears, we're just going to have to work this much harder. Hopefully this doesn't go on, but it could obviously."

Summerville cross country coach Terry Miller said that practice was canceled on Wednesday as well. Administrators told him that his team could go out for a walk, but he didn't want to expose his athletes to the smoke.

"It's really a bummer," he said. "You lose a lot by not training for a few days. We were making a lot of progress early in this school year. But that's the way it goes."

At Tioga High School in Groveland, athletic director Randi Mittlestadt said all fall sports practices have yet to start. Practices were set to begin with the launch of the 2013-14 school year, but with the Rim Fire delaying the school year, practices have been pushed back to next week.

"We have not started any kind of practices," Mittlestadt said. "No school. We are not suppose to call practice. I think they just called for an evacuation. Nobody's around to practice. So we are starting way back.

"We're hoping to start next week," he added. "Up here, the kids are working, and it's hard for us to not get them going."

Mittlestadt said that with the Rim Fire yet to be contained, it may hinder Tioga's cross country, soccer and volleyball teams a bit.

"It will handicap them a little," he said. "We'll play catch up and coaches will have to do their best to get them prepared."

The Timberwolves first cross country meet is scheduled for Aug. 29 at Eagle Lake in Tracy. If the team doesn't begin practice by next week, Mittlestadt said he will use that meet as a practice race.

"We would go and use it as a training run," he said. "A training run before and after the race."

For the Sonora Wildcat football team, the cancellation of outdoor practices did not deter what they are trying to do this preseason.

"We've had some good practices leading up to this and the players are where we need them to be right now," said Sonora head coach Bryan Craig. "So, it's not setting us back too much. We're doing some good things, focusing more on details that maybe normally wouldn't give so much time to during a normal practice."