In the final game of the 2015 regular season, The Citadel held on to defeat South Carolina, an SEC team, 23-22, on the road in Columbia. It was their first victory against an FBS opponent in 23 years and a prelude to their opening-round victory over Coastal Carolina in the FCS playoffs.
The road to that signature victory began in the sweltering depths of a Charleston summer, on a practice field several hundred yards from the marshy banks of the Ashley River. It’s the same locale where the Bulldogs are currently forging their 2016 squad.
“We try to model our summer program after what they do at the BCS level. said Donnell Boucher, the schools’ director of strength and conditioning. “We have a summer training program that this year it was about 7.5 weeks long.” Incoming freshmen also participate for a portion of the full summer session.
After the team concludes its June-July work, “They go home, they recharge their batteries, and then they come back to play a sport that they love,” said Boucher. Summer training at The Citadel is only a mild respite from the full academic rigors of the school year. The cadets aren’t required to wear military uniforms during the summer months, but their days remain more scheduled than most college students during the academic year. Most have internships and summer coursework accompanying their long days on the gridiron.
In the furnace of August, the Bulldogs beat the heat somewhat by practicing from 8:30 – 11 a.m, breaking for lunch, and then lifting indoors when the summer sun is at its apex.
“We know that we’re in Charleston, and we know that the heat index is going to get up above 100. There is a full staff of trainers out there that are spread out on the field. They’re monitoring the practice, almost the way that an official monitors a game,” said Boucher.
During the season, the Bulldogs turn their military discipline and experience in withering heat to their advantage. “It’s going to be hot against Mercer [the Citadel’s Week 1 opponent]. We’re not worried about that. We want to play a team in the worst conditions possible because we can function in the worst conditions possible,” Boucher said.
The mixed routine of an August week will sometimes include a second afternoon on-field practice, team meetings and film review, and a final team gathering to conclude the day.
“Our coaches do a great job of keeping the practices really brief and acute, but highly intense. So they’re not out there 3-4 hours at a time, grinding people up,” said Boucher. “We’re trying to keep them as close to a full tank of gas as possible at this period of the year, which is pretty difficult to do.”
Boucher, who was a four-year letterman as an undergraduate at Massachusetts’ Worcester State, is well suited to assess the differences between the rigors of life at The Citadel and the demands of a student-athlete at a non-military school.
“Our players spend a lot of time outside of their comfort zone. There’s no naptime in the middle of the day. When I was in school if I had a break between classes, I’d go back to my room and chill out. These guys don’t have that,” said Boucher. “The academics here are extremely challenging. There’s a whole element of leadership training that goes on top of their coursework and it doesn’t matter if you’re an engineer, an exercise science major or business major – you have more classes on top of your course load than you do at a normal college,” said Boucher.
Senior linebacker and Bulldogs’ standout Joe Crochet will be one of the leaders for The Citadel when it vies for a Southern Conference championship this year. He’s a seasoned veteran of the unique demands of a Charleston summer.
“In camp one of the things I do is walk around with a gallon jug. I try to finish two gallons a day just to stay hydrated and that my muscles are getting the proper water that they need to properly function and play at my strongest and fastest,” said Crochet, who is currently pursuing his MBA at The Citadel.
Crochet, a Stone Mountain, Ga., native, received interest from other colleges while he was at St. Pius X High School. Those schools included Furman – an in-state Southern Conference rival – and Georgia State of the FBS. He chose The Citadel.
“The prestige of the school sets you apart from any other school in America. I like adversity, I like the fact that it’s a road less traveled, and being able to graduate from The Citadel is a huge accomplishment,” said Crochet.
As for the upcoming season, “Our mindset is to win the conference outright. In order to do that, right now we need to focus on Mercer. An outright conference champion is our overall goal, and going to the playoffs and competing for a national championship,” said Crochet.
Boucher added a final word on Crochet that defines the important role the linebacker has in the huddle, the locker room, and away from the field as a volunteer and mentor.
“It doesn’t get any better than Joe Crochet. He’s here to serve this program in whatever way possible. He’s a humble guy; he knows he’s got to work for everything that he’s going to get. He had a great season last year and he’s been consistent throughout his career with us. He is without a doubt one of the leaders on our team,” said Boucher.
The Bulldogs went 9-4 overall last year – 6-1 in the SoCon – and captured a first-round FCS victory. They open against Mercer on Sept. 1 in Macon, Ga.