Wednesday, June 23, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.
The gymnasium at Pahrump Valley High is packed with 50 of the school’s football players this summer day.
Dressed in shorts, T-shirts and running shoes, the athletes enthusiastically throw themselves into a series of conditioning drills designed to improve strength, endurance and flexibility.
The air conditioning is blasting, but the players are working up a sweat. They challenge each other to run faster and practice harder.
After all, Pahrump has a lot of ground to make up. It has a 1-18 record since joining the large-school 4A classification in 2008, with the win coming in a nonleague game against a school transitioning from eight-man to 11-man competition.
However, coaches believe the team was competitive in half of its games last year before running out of gas. Pahrump, a town of about 25,000 residents, is 55 miles west of Las Vegas.
The school has an enrollment of 1,400 students — enough to be moved to 4A two years ago because it surpassed the 1,201 enrollment threshold for the 3A. But the school doesn’t have enough pupils to compete against Las Vegas schools with three times the enrollment: All of Pahrump’s athletic programs struggle finding bodies to fill the lineup.
Because of the low numbers, a majority of the football team’s key players are two-way performers. And, on several Friday nights when the game is on the line late, they often are too exhausted to put forth their best.
“It’s always been a numbers game with us,” Pahrump varsity coach Leo Verzilli said.
In an effort to revamp the program, the coaching staff reached out to one of Southern Nevada’s most notable trainers for help.
Former UNLV strength and conditioning coach Mark Philippi, whose Philippi Sports Institute trains the likes of former mixed martial arts champion Frank Mir and big leaguer Jason Giambi, is the mastermind behind designing a regimen coaches think will make a difference when the season opens in two months.
The team is in the second week of an eight-week training schedule with three-hour sessions four days a week.
“It’s going to take time for them to be ready to compete at the level they want,” Philippi said.
And it’s not just the varsity football team.
Philippi, who makes the little more than an hour’s drive to Pahrump for most sessions, has divided the athletes into three groups: varsity, junior varsity and pre-high school youths ages 9 to 12. Also, a handful of the school’s female athletes are training.
The philosophy is that upgrading the strength level of the town’s athletes at an early age will translate into victories when they arrive on the varsity team.
“Part of it is changing the attitude and getting the children to realize (training) is a year-round program,” Philippi said.
Varsity assistant coach Joe Clayton used to drive his two middle-school-age sons to Las Vegas four times a week so they could train at Philippi’s facility. Soon, the number of Pahrump athletes at the institute grew to six.
That’s when school athletic department officials worked with Philippi to bring his staff to them. Philippi is doing a similar program at Coronado and Shadow Ridge high schools in Las Vegas.
Philippi’s sessions are $74 a week for eight weeks of training, according to the institute’s website. Nearly 80 Pahrump athletes are involved in the program, with the students’ families responsible for paying. The booster club and other donors have assisted students who can’t afford the program.
“We know what it takes to compete at the 4A level, and we are in a transition right now to getting there,” Clayton said. “With us having such a small group of athletes, we look at this as needing the extra tools to compete.”
With the football field under construction — field turf is being installed — the training is done in the gym and weight room. Philippi’s crew uses tools such as cones and resistance bands to give the athletes a workout it says is beneficial.
The athletes are being schooled in everything from proper weightlifting techniques to drills that increase agility and flexibility. Monday and Wednesday sessions focus on linear movement; Tuesdays and Thursdays are reserved for lateral movement.
The training “isn’t going to help you catch a pass or throw the ball, but it will definitely help when it comes to pushing someone off the line of scrimmage,” said Jon Mitchell, a junior running back. “This makes us faster and more agile, just all-around better athletes.”
Although Philippi’s sessions can be downright brutal, the potential result of being victorious on Friday night makes the work worthwhile, the players say. The town formed a Pop Warner youth team five years ago that competes against Las Vegas squads, and several members from that team will be freshmen in the fall.
Pahrump opened the 2008 season with a victory against 2A Mountain View, the team’s last win. The following Friday night, the bleachers were packed for the home opener.
“The residents here always support the youth athletes,” said Bill Kohbarger, Pahrump’s town manager. “Obviously, everyone likes to support a winner, so if they start winning, the stands would be even more packed.”
A good start in 2010 could carry equal significance. Pahrump is 1-26-1 in the last three years and was outscored 302-61 last year.
“One win would really change everything,” said Brandon Murphy, a junior wide receiver. “That first win would carry over to the next week and carry down to the younger levels.”