A Perfect Partnership

Premier Athlete Training shows South Hamilton the path to success

South Hamilton student-athletes Lily Skartvedt, Conner Hill, Sam Lewis and Taylor Volkmann pose with South Hamilton graduate and Premier Athlete Training school coordinator Heath Johnson earlier this month inside the South Hamilton weight room. The school’s athletic programs have achieved tremendous successes in recent years under the strength and conditioning guidance of Premier, an Ames-based business that opened in 2015. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

JEWELL — Sam Lewis was skeptical, to put it nicely, as he stood inside the stuffy South Hamilton locker room.

Sept. 30, 2016 — Homecoming night at Taylor Field. Then an inured sophomore, Lewis watched the carnage unfold in street clothes from the Hawks’ sideline, as Madrid unleashed a 69-0 beating that put a damper on the festivities. The Tigers did anything and everything they wanted, and racked up 622 yards of offense against a South Hamilton football team that plummeted to 1-5 when the clock mercifully reached all zeroes.

Also on the Hawks’ sideline that night were two men unfamiliar to Lewis, both of them in Premier Athlete Training gear. They watched the bigger, faster, stronger Tigers put on a show and knew they could help.

One of the men was Ben Durbin, a co-owner of Premier, and he was about to walk to that same locker room and tell South Hamilton’s players something that would change the course of their athletic careers, even if they didn’t believe it at the time.

“He told us things are going to change around here,” Lewis recalled recently as a smile crept across his face. “I didn’t believe him, but he was definitely right.”

Premier Athlete Training owners Ben Durbin and Ernst Brun Jr. opened their business in 2015 and South Hamilton was the first area high school to sign on with the company. Premier now also runs the strength and conditioning programs at North Polk and Nevada. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

Straddling a weight bench inside the Premier Athlete Training facility on the west side of Ames, Ernst Brun Jr. is a model of fitness. His chiseled arms are on display in a sleeveless hooded sweatshirt as he speaks softly about the journey that brought him to where he is today.

The other co-owner of Premier grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and then headed out west to Mt. San Antonio Community College in Walnut, California. An All-American football career there brought him to Iowa State where he spent two seasons catching passes.

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound tight end worked out for the Oakland Raiders and eventually was signed by the Washington Redskins in August of 2015. The dream of playing in the NFL was short-lived, but the experience continues to bring a smile to his face.

“That was my first contract signing,” Brun Jr. said. “After I ran my 40 and ran two routes, they stopped the workout and told me to go sign the papers. That same week we went to go play the (Detroit) Lions … to get to that stadium and to see my family there, that was my dream. The adversity and speed bumps I had to go over, I mean, success is never straight. You’re going to get knocked down, but you’ve got to get back up and fight.”

South Hamilton student Mason Alsager trains with a dumbell inside the school’s weight room earlier this month. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

His eyes light up when he talks about meeting Lions’ wide receiver Calvin Johnson, his favorite player, that day. Remember that for later.

Durbin was a local prodigy, a multiple-sport star at Gilbert High School who had his choice between football and wrestling when it came time for college. He went with football at Wyoming and earned his degree before returning home for one final year as a graduate transfer at Iowa State.

Brun Jr. and Durbin quickly became friends at Iowa State. Training was something they’ve always had in common.

“I hung out with Ben a lot and we were in the same workout group,” Brun Jr. said.

Durbin gave up athletics for a short time after completing his eligibility with Iowa State, but eventually he opted to give wrestling another try and joined the Cyclone Training Center.

DFJ photo/Troy Banning

And when Brun Jr. returned to Ames, the pieces to start a business together just fell into place.

“We talked about this for about a year and we were both working different jobs then,” Brun Jr. said. “We put two and two together and here we are. I’ve been around the area for years since I was at Iowa State and I’ve seen a lack of skill development around. We wanted to help out the kids in the area.”

Training individuals on a one-on-one basis or in groups when they opened their doors in 2015 was just the start though. Brun Jr. and Durbin wanted something bigger and better; they wanted to reach as many kids as possible, but how?

And here’s where South Hamilton enters the picture.

“The idea came to us that if we could get into the schools — before school, after school, during (physical education class) — and help these kids out, that would be great,” Brun Jr. said. “So we ran with it.”

DFJ photo/Troy Banning

South Hamilton Athletic Director Todd Coy watched his coaches struggle for years as they tried to wear too many hats. The on-field or on-court coaching was only part of the job; there was also the task of sometimes begging athletes to venture to the weight room, and once they got the kids there then they had to attempt to instill some wisdom.

Some were equipped to handle weight training supervision, but many were not. And that was a problem, one that had begun to have a ripple effect in competition.

“I wanted to free up the coaches to be coaches,” Coy said. “To be able to devote the time you need to the strength and conditioning program, I feel that’s important, but we didn’t have coaches that had a history with that.”

Paul Skartvedt, a former football player at Iowa State, had heard about Premier and mentioned the company to Coy. A meeting was set up to see if Premier had the services that South Hamilton was looking for.

Durbin and Brun Jr. had to sell themselves.

“I knew Ben and had coached him in the Shrine Bowl, but I didn’t know Ernst,” Coy said. “He’s a pretty charismatic guy though and he sold himself right away. We had a really good meeting, and when you can tell (Class) 1A and 2A kids that you’re going to be taught about strength and conditioning by two guys that played Division I athletics, one guy who played in the NFL and the other guy is still trying to compete for an Olympic (wrestling) spot, that kind of sells itself.”

Thinking back to that first meeting more than two years ago, Coy doesn’t believe South Hamilton was taking a chance with the partnership. Coy saw it as an opportunity, one Brun Jr. says was a turning point for Premier.

“We can’t thank them enough for allowing us to do what we do with their kids,” he said of the South Hamilton community. “They trusted our expertise and that we knew what we were doing with those kids. It’s not just lifting weights and running we’re teaching, but character. They’ve all bought into the program and that was one of the biggest things.”

Remember Brun Jr.’s reaction to meeting Calvin Johnson? As he told his story, his eyes only expanded at one other point and that’s when he talked about the development of South Hamilton senior Lily Skartvedt, an all-conference volleyball player who will play collegiately at South Dakota State.

If there’s a poster child for what Premier has accomplished at South Hamilton, it’s Skartvedt.

“Lily, oh my gosh, she’s one of the hardest workers I’ve seen and I’d put her up against anybody,” Brun Jr. said. “I can keep naming names, like Taylor Volkmann, or the Logan Klemps of the world, those are some of the toughest kids you’ll ever meet.”

But two years ago, Skartvedt admits, weight training wasn’t something she was passionate about. If she was forced to enter the weight room, which wasn’t often, she went, but the lack of instruction made it a chore.

“We didn’t have a schedule, we’d just go in,” Skartvedt said. “We didn’t have any fundamentals. We didn’t know how we were supposed to squat or bench, things like that.”

The lack of a weight program frustrated Lewis more than most. His pleas to friends and teammates to spend time in the weight room went nowhere.

“When it’s you working out by yourself, it’s hard to push yourself,” he said. “Before Premier, we really didn’t have anything.”

And now?

“It’s meant everything,” Lewis said of the culture change since Premier took over the training. “It’s opened all of our eyes.”

Brun Jr. was the point man at South Hamilton when the relationship began, and what was once a quiet weight room was suddenly packed on a daily basis with him supervising the workouts. Athletes yearned to be taught, to grow, to be held accountable to themselves and each other.

“Ernst made it fun,” Taylor Volkmann, a senior volleyball and softball player, said. “We were having fun while pushing ourselves, which was great.”

Coy noticed an immediate impact on the students, both mentally and physically.

“The thing I really like about it is we were able to get more adults as positive role models in these kids’ lives,” Coy said. “Another adult they can build a relationship with and it wasn’t based on if they were good at baseball or basketball or golf. It was to make them a healthier, better athlete.”

Coy quickly points out that the program isn’t just for students who participate in sports. Any South Hamilton student can work with Premier, either at the school or at the facility in Ames.

“We have kids in there that aren’t out for athletics at all, which I think is awesome,” he said.

Wins, conference championships and state tournament appearances were not the primary goals for Coy when he first met with Durbin and Brun Jr. He was simply looking for a program that could help instill a heightened sense of fitness and confidence in his athletes.

Still, the wins, conference championships and state tournament appearances have been a pleasant byproduct. Are South Hamilton’s recent successes only because of the Premiere way? Not at all. But to say the regimen hasn’t played a significant role would be incorrect.

Since that fateful September night in 2016, the night Madrid took South Hamilton behind the woodshed, the Hawk football team has won 18 of 23 games and reached the Class 1A state playoffs in back-to-back seasons.

Over the last two years, Lewis says he lifted three days a week during the school year and five days a week over the summers. The pay-off came in the form of an all-district senior season at running back.

“Like I said, it’s changed everything,” he said. “We obviously had the talent, but talent doesn’t mean anything if you don’t work at it.”

Skartvedt has noticed the results of her workout program as well. She’s tiny by hitting standards on the volleyball court, but her explosiveness, jumping ability and power made her a weapon for a South Hamilton team that won 70 matches over the last three seasons.

“It’s helped with all aspects of volleyball,” Skartvedt said. “The strength has helped me the most, and the agility has helped me to be in better shape. I don’t get as tired as I used to.”

No program has had more success than the South Hamilton boys’ basketball team, which is 57-5 with a pair of conference titles and state tournament trips over the last two-plus seasons. And all you need to do is watch senior guard Conner Hill play one game to understand the virtue of weight room training.

Three years ago, as a freshman, Hill got by on his immense talents. He readily admits that he was small, too small, which is why he rarely ventured away from the 3-point line.

“There’s no doubt that when I was a freshman coming into high school, I was one of the most scrawny kids there was,” Hill said.

Hill went to work though, building his core and overall strength, and the results show in the transformation of his game today. The one-time shooter only is now a versatile offensive weapon, someone who can attack the rim and not flinch even a little bit when contact comes his way. At times he can score at will and is currently averaging 18.3 points per game for the seventh-ranked (2A) Hawks.

“Four years of lifting and constantly training, I’ve seen a change in my body from where I was,” Hill, who will play college basketball at Morningside, said. “It’s helped tremendously. I’ve been able to jump higher and my quickness is at an all-time high.”

Hill doesn’t think it’s an accident that South Hamilton’s recent run coincides with the relationship with Premier.

“There’s no doubt that since we’ve added this program we’ve had more success,” he said. “Being able to incorporate things from the weight room to the basketball floor, it’s a big factor.”

Girls basketball has seen a spike, from just two wins two seasons ago to nine a year ago.

South Hamilton’s boys’ cross country program has reached upper-echelon status in the state. Over the past three seasons, the Hawks have finished sixth twice at the state meet, and this past season they had their best state-meet result in nearly three decades — a third-place finish in 1A.

And then there’s Logan Peters, who has admitted to a previous hate-hate relationship with weight training. But the results of his work speak for themselves — an all-state cross country season, and last spring a state track meet that rivals the best the school has ever produced. He claimed four medals and capped his weekend with a 2A state title in the 1,600-meter run.

But for all the successes, Brun Jr. is most proud of the dedication South Hamilton’s athletes have shown.

“These last three years have been amazing to see how far they’ve come, and when it comes to character, that’s what matters to me,” he said. “When it really matters is when nobody is looking.”

The South Hamilton weight room is bustling with activity on a recent Monday afternoon as the girls’ basketball team practices in the gymnasium just a few feet away. For the past six months, a former Hawk star, Heath Johnson, has taken the reins and served as the school’s weight training coordinator for Premier.

Johnson, a four-time state wrestling qualifier and “one hell of a high school fullback,” according to Coy, during his years at South Hamilton quietly looks on as a group of younger female athletes lift under his direction.

He’s there to motivate and teach, but he says that’s not his primary objective.

“The biggest thing with me is I’ve built relationships with all the athletes, that’s what’s important to me,” Johnson said. “I love it and it makes it easy to get up in the morning. I wish I had somebody push me like this when I was in high school.”

Students spend up to 90 minutes per session, usually three times per week, with Johnson. Like with Brun Jr., Volkmann says the work is difficult, but enjoyable. And as she continues to gain strength back in her left knee after suffering a torn ACL last winter, she thinks the payoff will be noticeable as she prepares for her final summer in the softball pitcher’s circle.

“From my freshman to sophomore year, I improved a lot and that’s mainly because of Premier,” she said. “Since the injury, it’s helped me keep up with what I was like before the injury. We’ve had a lot of success in sports and a reason is because we’ve gotten a lot stronger.”

South Hamilton and Premier continue to work together on a year-by-year basis. Coy admits that the financial burden is substantial, upwards to $20,000 for this school year, but the community has rallied behind it because it can see the results in each and every student-athlete.

“If you would have told me 10 years ago that I was going to be able to find $20,000 to do strength and conditioning, I wouldn’t have believed it. But the community has come through tremendously,” Coy said. “Our South High (Pride) booster club has done a nice job supporting it, and we have a fundraiser at the beginning of the year that helps support it.

“Before Premier, there was a lack of commitment to the athletic programs the kids were in. It was OK to show up, do it and then go to the next thing. But within the development of our strength and conditioning program, the commitment and confidence are two of the greatest things that have taken place.”

Brun Jr. repeatedly returns to those concepts as he thinks back to his own development. It’s why he’s passionate about the business he and Durbin started together, and it’s why he says he’s exactly where he was meant to be.

“I made it, but I worked my behind off to get where I am now,” Brun Jr. said. “Anyone can do it. Don’t ever think just because you’re in the eighth or ninth grade, you can’t do it. These South Hamilton kids, they believe and they buy in. I’ll take those kids at South Hamilton against anybody.”

One thing is for sure: Lewis is no longer skeptical.


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