FISHKILL, N.Y. - Mount Misery loves company.
Well, maybe love isn't precisely the word to describe a rite of summer for hundreds of Sachem and Sachem North football players, who have been running up the steep hill that backs up to Deer Lake Dam on the campgrounds at Sharpe Reservation since 1991.
That's the year that Joe Zarzycki, a Sachem senior playing for venerable coach Fred Fusaro, was part of the first group to run the hill. "It's the first time that Fred had ever used that type of conditioning," said Zarzycki, now a teacher at Sachem North and a volunteer assistant on the Sachem East football coaching staff. "We were used to suicide sprints and long runs around the grounds. But on this particular day, Fred loaded us into a truck and I'll never forget when the truck backed up to the hill and we got out. It was very formidable. Then Fred made us run. We only ran it five times that day."
Fusaro, now an assistant under Glenn coach Dave Shanahan -- another Sachem graduate who has run the hill -- is the historic link that ties Mount Misery to Glenn and Sachem North, coached by Dave Falco, who was part of the first Sachem class (1983) to visit this bucolic spot in the hills of Dutchess County, about 60 miles north of New York City.
Shanahan and Falco brought their teams here in late August, and both had their players run the hill that got its name from a short story Zarzycki wrote as a student that was published in the Sachem literary magazine. He titled his piece "Misery Mountain" and the nickname has stuck. "Since I teach here,'' he said, "I'm kind of proud of it."
Those uphill climbs are part of the routine for an annual five-day getaway that Glenn and Sachem North utilize to unite their players. Falco, Shanahan and Fusaro believe these trips help their players concentrate solely on football, bond as teammates and temporarily avoid the distractions teenagers face during summers on Long Island. It also breaks up the monotony of preseason practices that began on Aug. 18 in preparation for the upcoming season, which for both teams begins next weekend.
"You have a captive audience and no one misses practice," said Fusaro, who recalled taking his Sachem teams away beginning in 1972 and settling on the Sharpe Reservation in 1983.
Good morning, campers
The day starts early at Camp A-B-C, where Glenn stayed, and Camp Hidden Valley, home of Sachem North. Both teams are awakened at their cabins deep in the woods at 6 a.m. for a 6:15 run. (Glenn runs two miles; Sachem North goes 2½.)
Shanahan insists that his Knights sing as they run. This year it was the Army drill song that inspired a popular Gatorade TV ad: "Hard work, work; hard work." Falco's Flaming Arrows don't sing as they run, but halfway through, they stop for a break near the flagpole and sing the Sachem fight song and "God Bless America."
After the morning run and a team stretch, servers report to set up the tables for breakfast. The players rotate the roles of servers and clean-up crews. All meals are served family-style and the seating arrangement calls for mixing the varsity and JV players to foster the bonding theme.
However, to reduce potential bullying episodes, both schools assign players of similar age to each cabin and divide the coaches' cabins so there is supervision of both the JV and varsity cabin sites. "Since we've done it this way, there hasn't been a single incident," said Falco, whose school also hired two retired NYPD detectives to work security from 10 p.m. -- lights out -- until wakeup call at 5 a.m.
After a team meeting, there is a morning practice that lasts two to 21/2 hours, followed by lunch. Either a break or a team meeting precedes the afternoon practice, which often involves intense work on tackling and blocking techniques using sleds as well as team offensive and defensive drills with some contact.
"We run a tight ship. This camp is great for the kids to develop team chemistry. We work them hard -- our slogan is 'the only easy day was yesterday' -- but we also try to make it fun," said Shanahan, whose coaching staff also labors. "We put in a big part of our offense and defense up here. There's plenty of time for us to get into the X's and O's."
Falco, a tech-savvy coach who posts practice photos on Facebook for demanding parents every few hours, brought flat screens, laptops and video cameras to Fishkill to tape practices, and his coaches pore over video at their nightly sessions.
Back to the Stone Age
In sharp contrast, there are no signs of 21st-century teenage life among the players. "No cellphones, no radios, no technology," Falco said. "This is a great learning experience. Some of these kids have never been away from home on their own. A common theme for us is that this is hard and that we're doing it together. Any time you have that, there's a bonding effect."
At the end of the afternoon practice, teams run Mount Misery. Today's players know what's coming. Some relish the challenge; others lag behind. But in 1991, Zarzycki recalled, "No one knew what to expect when we got into the truck."
In fact, Fusaro said he told them they were going for ice cream. "They weren't too happy when I made them run instead," he said with a devilish grin. "But the next year, I brought up a snow-cone machine."
After Mount Misery, there is some free time before dinner. Camp Hidden Valley (well-named, as it would be difficult to find in the deep woods without the arrow-shaped signs that guide you on twisting roads) has two swimming pools with lifeguards, so Sachem North players gleefully dive in. Camp A-B-C (named for founder Anita Bliss Coler) doesn't have a pool, but the Glenn players sometimes swim in Deer Lake.
Shanahan also likes to build team chemistry with friendly competitions such as volleyball night, tug-of-war night and a fishing event that turned out to be quite popular.
"I told them if they caught 100 fish, they could run in the morning without their helmets," Shanahan said. "They caught 114 and they were thrilled."
After dinner there is another meeting before a 11/2-hour evening session that emphasizes special teams. Snacks are served at 9 p.m. and it's lights out at 10. There is no trouble falling asleep.
"It's just football, football, football. The coaches push us hard, so the only people we have to lean on are each other," Sachem North senior running back/cornerback Kevin Bragaglia said. "We're up here with our teammates and our coaches and we definitely focus more."
Said Sachem North senior quarterback Mike Licata, "It's rough for us but it helps us bond as a team because we feed off each other and help each other. Living with other kids is different. Some guys are cleaner than others, but ultimately this is a great experience. We share laughs, we argue, but it's just one big family out here."
Glenn's players felt the same vibes. "The camp brings us all together because we have to depend on each other," junior lineman Edwin Rubio said.
Another Knights lineman, senior Anthony Pino, said he could see his team "get closer" as the week progressed. "You see kids that didn't really hang out now talking to each other, eating together, joking around on the porch, even singing together," he said.
Camp is all about harmony, according to Glenn senior running back/middle linebacker T.J. Tiernan. "Before camp, we're not as close, but after camp, it's like everyone on the team is best friends," Tiernan said. "It's definitely good to get away from everything at home for a few days and just bond together as a team. It's an amazing experience."
No player used the word "amazing" to describe the experience of running up Mount Misery, which they do at least 10 times in a session. "Some kids may be scared of running it," Sachem North senior running back Jasheem Banks said. "But it's all about mental toughness."
On a warm Tuesday, with Falco standing at the foot of the hill, whistle in hand, and urging them on, the Flaming Arrows made 14 treks up the fabled hill. For each one, the players yelled out a number and a catchphrase as they grinded it out on the steep, unforgiving incline.
1 - Is for fun!
2 - Is for you!
3 - Is for me!
4 - We want more!
5 - We're still alive!
6 - Just for kicks!
7 - Feels like heaven!
8 - It feels great!
9 - Feelin' fine!
10 - Let's do it again!
11 - Feels like 7!
Now there are no convenient rhymes, so Falco improvises and the weary players buy in.
12 - LIC! ("It's the 12th game," prompts Falco.)
13 - Preparation! ("Lucky 13? It's not lucky, it's preparation!" yells Falco.)
14 - Fourteen! (It's 2014. It's our year!" Falco roars.)
The legend of Mount Misery lives on, but there's gain that lingers after the pain of fatigue subsides. "Sachem has always been known for having really close-knit teams," Flaming Arrows senior lineman Anthony DiMatteo said. "When you work this hard in these unique conditions for so long, you are bound to bond with your teammates in a way you just can't back home."
For the final run of the day, the Arrows' fitter players deliberately waited for the stragglers to finish lap No. 13 so they could all run No. 14 together. "Some of the players obviously struggle, but we do our best to pick each other up," DiMatteo said. "There's definitely a sense of accomplishment. It's a really valuable experience for our program."
In the end, it turns out, the company loves misery.