If Floral Park football's old field was nicknamed "The Rock,'' then its current practice set-up should be called "the pebble.''
With practice on a hard, rocky, uneven patch situated on the rightfield grass of the school's softball field, the Knights conduct their drills around drops and divots, and try at all costs to avoid the no man's land that is the clay dirt infield. The area is about 30 yards by 40, and players sometimes find themselves crashing into the junior varsity team doing its exercises in left. The offensive line gets dirt and pebbles kicked into its eyes. There are no goal posts; the kicker simply sets up near the far fence and uses the strength of his imagination.
"It hurts us," coach Michael Spina said. "It's definitely a disadvantage. I've been doing this for 18 years, but I've always had the [playing field] on certain days -- especially in the first two weeks of the season. We'd concentrate on specials and kicking . . . [Now] we have a hard time running because of the space."
Floral Park's old football field has been deemed a hazard after years of being one of the most-maligned playing surfaces in Nassau County. The grass was covered in pebbles and sometimes even glass, junior quarterback Connor Vidasolo said, earning it the unflattering nickname. The district has installed a sprinkler system with the hope of either putting new grass down or raising enough money for a turf field, athletic director James Jackman said.
"The goal is to have turf," which would take about two years, he said. "But with the economy the way it is, it's tough to find funding. is going to try to find a way to subsidize it and get together a plan of action, but nothing has been established yet."
If it can't find the money, the district will work with what it has -- putting down new grass and getting the field in football shape by the 2013 season, Jackman said.
Until then, Floral Park is a team of road warriors. It has four "home" games this year, the first of which was played Friday night at Mitchel Field, a 19-6 loss to South Side. The others are at Denton Avenue Park and Hofstra. It couldn't find a place for its fourth game, the last of the season, and will be forced to play it on the road at Lawrence, Spina said.
That means the Knights' Homecoming won't actually be a homecoming, and senior night likely will be held about seven miles away, at Hofstra. That, though, is the least of the Knights' problems. Certain passing patterns are impossible to practice in the small space, the secondary is trying to learn without hash marks or sidelines and at least five players have rolled ankles or tweaked their knees, senior running back/cornerback Ronnell Jones said.
"You can't make the cuts you usually want to because you're scared that you're going to twist your ankle a little bit," said Jones, who is coming back from an injury to his right knee last season. "We have to get our ankles taped before practices and wear ankle braces. It's kinda hard to run, too, with the traction and everything. It's hard to get used to."
Vidasolo added that the injuries "could easily be avoided," if Floral Park had a different setup.
"It's a challenge season," Spina said. Floral Park has only 28 players on the roster, and while Spina said Manhasset deserved its 29-26 win in the season opener last week, the 362 passing yards the Knights gave up was also a byproduct of their current situation.
"You're going out there playing a Cover-3 or a Cover-2 zone and you're telling kids to go play the hash marks," Spina said. "When you practice on a 40-yard field, you look like you're in the right spot, and then you get spread out like Manhasset spread us out. When the defense thought they were playing half the field, they were really playing a third."
An added obstacle is that Floral Park has shifted from an I-formation to a spread offense. The practice field, Vidasolo said, hardly favors the new look.
"It's different when I'm dropping back," said the first-year quarterback, who rolled his right ankle dropping back in practice last week. "It's uneven. Looking downfield, you can't see as well. It's so straight on a turf field . . . you can't really practice a long fade because you barely have any room. You can try the fade, but the dirt mound is right there and [the receiver] can easily fall."
Knowing that Homecoming will be somewhere else can be disheartening, Vidasolo said. Even so, "there are definitely less distractions," Jones said. Both players have become somewhat adept at finding the bright side, and that becomes clear when they reach the same conclusion at different points in the conversation.
Jones, rolling his neon cleats on the nickel-sized pebbles, sums it up best: "Well, if you can play on this, you can play on anything."