By Dan Hardenbrook
The 2021 varsity football season will always be one to remember for the Newberry Indians. The program featured five All UP players and set a single season record for points scored on their way to a 7-2 record, a playoff win over perennial powerhouse Pickford, reaching the MHSAA 8 Player regional final. The tribe finished in a tie for second place in the loaded Great Lakes 8 East Conference and were just a couple of wins away from a state championship. All were great accomplishments, but the focus is on the future for longtime Head Coach Joe Austin as a new year gets underway.
“I think we took a big step forward last year with the success that we had, but we have a tough schedule and play some really strong teams,” said Austin, who enters his fifth season as Indians Head Coach, and 45th overall in his Hall of Fame career. “The challenges are there for us, and I think we will meet them.”
Austin has spent the off season developing a culture he hopes will lead to even greater success in 2022. “
We have talked a lot about having a united front in the program,” he said. “That goes for the kids as players and us coaches. It starts at the top and works its way all the way down. We have to have that united front to be in this thing together and on the same page.”
Austin credits a successful off-season program and summer workout numbers for helping get the team started in the right direction. “The kids have really been working hard so we are pretty optimistic here,” he said.
One of the big challenges will be replacing the seniors who led not only in talent on the field but leadership in the locker room. That includes former QB Connor Rintamaki, TE/WR Eric Edwards, and LB Johnny Nutkins, who were All UP players last season in key spots. The team also lost 2021 Len St. Jean Award winner Liam Shanley, plus a host of key role players that filled much needed roles.
Those are big shoes to fill, but Austin says this team is loaded with talent, too.
“A lot of that is going to be on the leadership in the program right now. We have six seniors that are returning from last year and they’ve done a pretty good job of being here almost every day all summer,” Austin said. “I’m really proud of them. The cupboard is not bare by any means.”
He expects players like Zach Burton and Marco Juarez to offer All UP performances this season. Matty Rahilly will be a sophomore this season, and already made the All UP roster as a freshman.
“We have kids that have proven talent,” Austin said. “They have to get after it again this year, and I think they will.”
The Indians may be two players deep at most positions, formerly unheard of for a school of this size.
“When I took over here, we only had 17 kids total in the program, and now we are talking about having enough kids to maybe find quality kids that can play just one side of the ball, which would be a tremendous advantage to us,” Austin said.
The Indians will also have multiple players who were JV call ups last season, which gave those players an opportunity to get a head start at the Varsity level and blend their talent with experience.
Rahilly and Ethan Pavey both played key roles as freshmen and will be expected to start again as sophomores, and Brien Nelson, Gabe Luck, Jacob Mohar, Kennedy Depew, and Gavin Nutkins all saw time as sophomores. They may be ahead of the game coming into their junior seasons, which is when most players learn the varsity program for the first time.
The Indians open practice next Monday, August 8. They will have three weeks to get ready for their season opener on August 26 at Brimley.
The next few weeks will be crucial as the team embarks on another championship quest, and Austin is stressing two things: the fundamentals, and team unity.
“Everybody has to be on the same page working for the same goals,” he said. “Everybody on this team has an opportunity for personal greatness. I’m going to measure greatness by the effort they put forward in practice rather than if they score four touchdowns in a game.”
As for Austin, he’ll approach the season the way he usually does: with focus on the kids.
“I still care about the kids and I get excited when I see the kids come here and I see improvement,” he said. “It’s a great thing that they get to do. I think it sets the tone for the rest of their lives.”