The PHS Athletics Department revamped its strength and conditioning program in the winter of 2010, coinciding with a historic run that’s netted the school 10 state titles in three and a half years.
The brains behind the brawn is Chase Kistler, Powell’s strength and conditioning coach and, as of 2013, the head coach of the boys’ basketball team.
Kistler, 32, graduated from University of Wyoming with a degree in health science and designs specific workouts for athletes depending on which sport they play.
“Our strength has allowed us to be a lot more competitive across the board,” Kistler said.
Powell’s recent stars — Hayden Cragoe, Cory Heny, Garrett Lynch, Kalei Smith, Riley Stringer and more — have all been regulars in early-morning sessions.
“Lynch is a prime example. He’s one of the first people that’s started with the zero hour,” Kistler said of the UW-bound shot and discus thrower.
PHS wrestling coach Nate Urbach said he’s seen the effects of the training on his three-time defending state champion Panther wrestling team.
“It’s a pretty elite group that gets in that zero hour,” Urbach said. “It does nothing but help the kids. And that’s a huge part of our school success.”
Powell’s coaches agree that overall fitness has increased while occurrences of major injuries has decreased since the class’s inception.
At 6:30 a.m. each school-day athletes (about 40 this past year, compared to 16 in 2010) file into the PHS weight room and check their exercise routine, which is projected on the wall.
The athletes are divided into circuits. Soccer players and distance runners in one, football players and track and field throwers in another and basketball players, sprinters and volleyball players in another.
The details of each workout change constantly to allow for muscle recovery and to keep athletes actively engaged.
“It changes every day, always working on something new,” Kistler said. “You gotta keep them motivated somehow. (You) got to keep it fun but you have to keep them challenged.”
It takes a lot to convince the average high school student to wake up one minute before they absolutely have to, but Kistler’s zero-hour class has forged a mature, driven attitude in Powell’s top athletes that perseveres even through Wyoming’s winters.
“It takes a lot of devotion to the team,” Kistler said. “It takes a lot of discipline. Parents comment on how disciplined they’ve become.”
Kistler said one of the biggest challenges he faces is giving the athletes reason to return to the weight room each morning.
Stringer, who will be a senior this fall, has been a part of seven team championships (three football, three wrestling, one track) while claiming this year’s 220-pound title at the Class 3A state wrestling tournament.
His three-season sports schedule is exhausting, but Stringer has found time to be a part of Kistler’s class since it began, when he was in the eighth grade.
“It does get kind of hard to stay motivated, especially right in the middle of wrestling,” Stringer said. “But it’s all worth it.”
Stringer wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to make the class and said “the hardest part is getting up and out of bed in the morning.”
But the camaraderie he finds from his teammates upon arrival lifts his spirits for lifting.
“Once I get there everyone is usually in a good mood and that helps make people want to work harder,” Stringer said.
It’s Kistler’s ability to mix up what could become tired routines that keeps athletes like Stringer happy to sacrifice an hour’s worth of sleep and comfort.
“How you vary it and how you keep these kids wanting to come back, that is the tricky part,” Kistler said. “When it’s 10 below zero in the middle of December, getting out of bed can be very tricky.”
The dedication of those early risers has drawn praise from coaches.
“When you have kids willing to put that extra time in it’s nice to give them a venue to do that,” said PHS track coach Scott Smith. “All of our sports have benefitted from that.”
Not surprisingly, the athletes who got the most out of the training were the ones who put in the most time.
“The senior class this year — Cory Heny, Garrett Michael, Garrett Lynch — all those guys were in there every day and hardly missed a day,” Kistler said.
Not only do the crack-of-dawn workouts fit the busy schedules of student-athletes, they also provide the best results.
“It’s the best time for the athletes because we can get a good workout in and they have eight hours to recover before practice,” Kistler said.
Now PHS coaches can commit their practice time to sport-specific technique, strategy, drills and scrimmages rather than dedicating large amounts of time to conditioning.
“We used to try to incorporate some type of weight training into our practices and now we don’t have to,” Smith said.
Kistler said the class was male-dominant when it started but he saw close to a 50-50 split between boys and girls in 2013-14.
Kistler acknowledges the positive results, but he doesn’t take credit for the rapidly filling trophy cases even as schools around the state have taken notice of the correlation.
“A lot of coaches have called me, a lot of ADs [athletic directors] have called me asking me about the program,” said Kistler, who thinks similar programs will become more common across the state.
Improved strength is the main goal, Kistler said, but injury-prevention and recovery has been a welcome side effect.
When a rash of knee injuries ravaged Panther sports two years ago Kistler altered his approach and focused on protecting one of an athlete’s most crucial-yet-delicate body parts.
“I started doing a lot more leg-specific (exercises) to help with the strength of the knee,” Kistler said.
Many variants of squats, lunges, jumps and other leg exercises were added into the routines and the Panthers suffered no major knee injuries in the 2013-14 season.
“As you increase strength and flexibility it decreases chance of injury,” Kistler said. “Their time out (due to) injury is less because they’re quicker healed.”