Earning their varsity stripes

Harrisburg senior Blake Williams (center) breaks through a line of tacklers while carrying the ball during a play from scrimmage during Monday’s practice. The Bulldogs will open their first varsity football season later this month, traveling to Tolton Catholic in Columbia on Aug. 22. Harrisburg has been assigned to Class 1 District 6 for the next two seasons, joining Fayette, Marceline, Salisbury, Santa Fe, Slater, Sweet Springs and Westran in the district.

By Greg Jackson
Sports Editor

Harrisburg enjoyed several firsts last year during its inaugural football season.

The Bulldogs won their very first game of the 2013 season. Homecoming was held in the fall for the first time, not during basketball season. The list of firsts can go on and on, but as Harrisburg heads into its second season of football, it’s about to encounter another first.

Harrisburg will play its first season of varsity football in 2014. The Bulldogs, now in their second week of practice, are less than two weeks from playing as a varsity opponent for the first time in the program’s short history.

“The expectations are higher since it’s varsity now,” senior quarterback Blake Williams said.

Harrisburg will get its varsity tune-up on Friday during the jamboree at Central Methodist University, which also features teams from Fayette, Slater and Summit Christian Academy. The Bulldogs play their first varsity contest the following Friday, Aug. 22, at Tolton Catholic in Columbia.

Like most high schools with football, Harrisburg will continue to play a JV schedule too, after going 5-4 last year in its first season playing a JV schedule. But this year, the Bulldogs will consistently play on Friday nights, just like any other football team in the state.

“We’ve really been working on us getting better at what we do,” Harrisburg head coach Travis Kinkade said. “Throughout our summer camps and our preseason stuff, we’ve really been working on becoming better football players overall, both with the knowledge of the game and how the game is played.”

Like any first-year program, Kinkade said there were plenty of growing pains along the way last season. After all, some players had never played organized football before. The ones who had, they got their previous football experience playing youth football as a kid.

Some growing pains still exist, but the second-year head coach said he has noticed a significant difference in his players’ level of experience from year one to year two.

“Tons of a difference,” Kinkade said. “The kids that I have as seniors now, I had every single one of them last year. They’ve really bought into the style of football that we’re going to play. It’s something we spent a lot of time in the offseason working on.”

Playing a varsity opponent won’t be a foreign concept to Harrisburg this year. In addition to facing varsity teams in last year’s jamboree, the Bulldogs played two varsity teams last season. Harrisburg hosted Tolton Catholic for its Homecoming game and played Clopton/Elsberry in its regular-season finale.

However, those two games accounted for half of the team’s losses, and in a lopsided fashion. Tolton shut out the Bulldogs 41-0 and Clopton/Elsberry ended Harrisburg’s first season with a 68-22 defeat.

Kinkade said a huge pickup from playing two varsity opponents was that his players learned what was expected of them on a Friday night compared to a Monday night.

“I felt like in the (Tolton game), we just weren’t mentally and physically ready to play at that level,” Kinkade said. “But progressing through that JV season and getting the younger kids a lot of reps, when it came to that Clopton game, we played much better. We were more prepared.”

Harrisburg was originally scheduled to host Tolton in its season opener, but because plans to complete a new grandstand, press box and scoreboard at its home field were pushed back, the game location was changed to Tolton. Kinkade said those upgrades are scheduled to be finished in time for Harrisburg’s first home game against Tipton on Sept. 12.

Crowds are expected to be large again this year for Harrisburg’s home football games. An estimated crowd of 1,000 people watched the inaugural game last year and many more showed up for the Homecoming game against Tolton.

“Everybody was into the game in our first game, including the fans,” said junior Drew Ewens, who scored the first touchdown in Harrisburg football history. “I will say the only thing that could amount to a Friday night game (in comparison) would be a basketball tournament championship game.”

Harrisburg graduated just five seniors from last year’s team and enters the 2014 season with nine seniors on a team of 27 players. However, Kinkade said he is still giving kids the opportunity to join the team until Friday and hopes to pick up at least two to three more players before the end of the week.

In addition to having more players coming out this season, Harrisburg also has a bigger coaching staff for 2014. Joining Kinkade and assistant coach Jeff Wardrip this season is Roger VanDeZande, who spent the past five seasons as Southern Boone’s football head coach before joining the Harrisburg coaching staff. He will serve as the team’s defensive coordinator.

Kinkade also picked up two volunteer assistant coaches: Mason Hardin, a Harrisburg graduate who played college football at Friends University; and Christian Matthews, who will be a student teacher at Harrisburg this year.

During the summer, Kinkade held meetings with the seniors on the team. He said they discussed some team goals, including where they would like to end up as a district seed. Harrisburg was placed in Class 1 District 6 for the next two seasons, joining Fayette, Marceline, Salisbury, Santa Fe, Slater, Sweet Springs and Westran in the district.

“We’ve gone through our schedule and we’ve gone over our opponents and the programs that they have,” Kinkade said. “My seniors have set the level of what we want our football program to model after some of the more dominant football programs. We didn’t talk so much about wins and losses as we did about getting better every week.”

Unlike last year, Harrisburg players and fans will be able to follow along with the complicated math that goes into seeding teams in districts on a week-to-week basis. MSHSAA posts the updates either late Friday night shortly after the scores are reported or early Saturday morning.

During the past offseason, Harrisburg was able to announce that it will join the Lewis & Clark Conference, beginning in the 2016-17 school year. Harrisburg’s football schedule will have a completely different look in two years. Right now, Fayette is the only Lewis & Clark opponent on the schedule, so Harrisburg will have to make adjustments to add games against the other five schools in the conference.

A program that started from scratch less than two years ago is about to embark on its next big adventure. A lot has transpired since the school announced it would begin playing football, but players are realizing the next big day for the Bulldogs is on its way.

“It’s my last year and I don’t want to hold anything back,” Williams said. “I want to look back when I’m older and know that I did what I could to support my team.”

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