ALBANY -- Mike White knows how to build championships, step by sandy step.
White, who has coached the Albany State football team to five SIAC titles in the last decade, sat in the bed of his truck as the sun rose early Monday morning, encouraging his players as they ran up and down the famed sand dunes near the ASU football field.
"These dunes have been around for a long time, and we have been running them for a long time," White reflected. "(The players) are always excited about getting started and excited about coming over, because this is the way we start off each year. Hit the dunes and see what kind of shape we are in."
It's a tradition that has cemented itself in the Rams' program -- one that is built on determination and teamwork, which were both on display Monday morning.
"It's all about coming together as a team, and seeing who is ready to have your back," junior Justin Blash said as he was catching his breath and brushing sand off his hands.
Blash has been there before. He has climbed the dunes and stumbled back down, helped staggering teammates find their second wind; knelt to the ground in exhaustion only to rise back up and find a way to get back to the top of the dunes.
And he has also won championships.
"You find out that this is what it takes to win," said Blash, who will return as a defensive end and leader of the Rams defense.
Waiting at the top of the dune Monday were offensive coordinator Uyl Joyner and running backs coach Kenyan Conner. Joyner, who played quarterback for the Rams nearly a decade ago, remembers forging his own path in the sand.
"Sand dunes is something we have been doing since I was in high school," said Joyner, who led Dougherty to a state title in 1998. "The biggest thing I remember is guys going down and helping each other up. It brings you together as a team for real, because you have to help your teammate up the hill. It's good training, and it's good to make this team gel in a hurry."
The 6 a.m. conditioning drill lasted one hour and officially kicked off ASU's fall practice. The Rams took to the practice field two hours after making their final sprint up the dune.
"It really makes your leaders step forward, and you know who your leaders are now," Joyner said. "You are trying to push them to get up the hill, but you are pushing your leaders to lead this team and get your guys up the hill. It is good for conditioning, and it is good for the team as a whole."
The Rams begin the season with expectations about as steep as the sand dune. They will be defending an SIAC title and an SBN National Black College Football Championship.
On Monday, those expectations became real. And the Rams handled them the only way they know how -- one sandy step at a time.