By Dan Hardenbrook

It’s official: Newberry High School Football is back! Twenty-eight players in grades 9-12 took the field in the program’s first official practice of the 2020 season on Monday. Though nobody knows what’s next, the focus is clear. Be prepared to play.

Head Coach Joe Austin laid out his expectations immediately. “We are going to control what we can control,” he said. “We won’t let what we are doing, or not doing, be the reason we won’t play. We are going to come together, practice, and prepare to play as long as we are here.”

After a fired up pre-practice speech, the 43-year coaching veteran roamed the practice stations, trying to spark a fire that he hopes will ignite a good season for both the JV and varsity squads.

“I expect us to be good,” he told the players. “We are going to compete! That starts right here! If you can’t give me 100% effort out here starting right now, you don’t have to be here! But if you’re willing to do the work and give me absolutely everything you got, then I’m glad you’re here!”

Many players were back on a practice field for the first time in months, and their return was anything but normal. A sanitizing station was placed at the entrance to the football field, and every player who arrived for practice was screened and temperature checked before being allowed into practice. Players then received the only equipment that MHSAA currently allows: a helmet and mouthpiece. The locker room was open to only one player at a time.

Players were fitted for their helmets in the coaches’ office, given their own water bottle that they will keep for the season, and assigned a locker to store their helmets and water bottles after practice. Then it was time to get down to business.

Mother nature also got involved, as rain came down throughout the early portion of practice. That couldn’t dampen the mood. During the rain, Assistant Coach John Nutkins, who has seen his fair share of practices, was still excited. “It’s just awesome to see kids get to play a sport of some kind, whatever it is!” he said.

Players were split into small groups and ran through a series of tackling drills with pads and wheels, then coaches explained their base formations and alignments for future practices.

The hope is that at some point, the preparation will pay off with games. But even though there’s no guarantees, the coaches are going to keep the kids focused on the future.

“We’ve just got to take things one day at a time,” said JV Head Coach and Varsity Assistant Zach Clickner. “We could be done tomorrow; you just don’t know. So at the end of each day we will discuss the plan and tell the players what we want to work on tomorrow. Then we will show up and get the job done.”

Austin added in, “That goes back to focusing on what we can control. I’m focused on making us a better team, and turning these young men into better football players. We can’t worry about that other stuff. The one thing we have no excuse for is to not be prepared.”

Coaches were very impressed with the total numbers, which are pretty close to being even between the JV and varsity-aged kids. A new rule put in place by the MHSAA makes freshmen and sophomores available to play on both teams this season, as long as the games are on separate days.

“That’s a little extra motivation for those young guys,” Austin said. “Being able to play five quarters a week will be huge. We are practicing all together as one group. So we know that those guys will be ready to step in and help us if we get into a bind in the varsity game.”

That creates competition on the squad, which Austin said he hadn’t seen in any of his years coaching at Newberry.

Clickner said it also gives coaches more flexibility with the roster. “We’ve always been short on numbers somewhere,” he said. “This year we are really in good shape.”

So, for now, football is back. If all goes well, the Indians are scheduled to open their 2020 season against Carney Nadeau on Thursday, August 27.