In exactly one month, there will be a football game played under the lights on a Tuesday evening in Harrisburg.
Sure, it may be a junior varsity game, but it’s a dream-turned-reality that has been in the making for several years. That night, Sept. 3, the Bulldogs will host Tipton in the first football game in Harrisburg High School history.
Harrisburg will play a JV schedule this fall before debuting at the varsity level in 2014. Just like any other varsity program in Missouri, the Bulldogs will play nine regular-season games. And the middle-school football team will also start a program this fall.
Harrisburg football head coach Travis Kinkade has been pretty busy this summer putting the pieces in place to have his team ready to compete on the gridiron come September. This week was the second week of the Bulldogs’ two-week voluntary camp. After a week off next week during MSHSAA’s mandated “dead week” period — when high-school athletes do not make contact with their coaches for any activities — Harrisburg will hold its first official practice on Aug. 12.
I had a chance to sit down with Kinkade on Tuesday and discuss the steps of starting a football program from scratch and his plan for the future of Harrisburg football.
Q: From February until now, there has been a lot going on for you. When you were first hired (at Harrisburg), you were wrapping up the JV basketball season at Centralia. How has the process been for you the past five months, trying to start a program from scratch and getting it ready for its first season?
A: It’s definitely been a whirlwind of things. The Booster Club has been great and they’ve been really supportive, helping get this program off the ground. The support of the administration in my hiring and my transition from Centralia over here has been great. The main thing was getting things ordered. There is a lot of stuff you have to have to start a program. We’re basically going bare bones. We don’t have all the bells and whistles we would like to have, but we do have plans for that stuff in the future. We’re getting what we have to have and making it work for us. We’re getting things ordered in a timely fashion. Just about everything we’re going to need is in. We’ve got footballs, we’ve got jerseys. We’re good to go.
Q: I may have asked you this when you were first hired, but was it the opportunity to start up a program from scratch, to build a program of your own, that intrigued you into coming to Harrisburg?
A: It’s been a real good challenge for me to build this thing, good or bad. Regardless of how it ends up, it’s going to be what I made it. I look at this being a long-term deal and really establishing this as a very competitive football program. (Harrisburg) has the kids and the community, so I’m looking forward to getting this going and building it the way I want it built.
Q: Having grown up in a community like Centralia, which has been a football powerhouse for years and years, how much help has that helped in starting up this program?
A: I’ll never forget what the community of Centralia gave to me, as a player when I was in high school and then just in their support. Everybody that I’ve been associated with, they’ve all wished me the best of luck. They want me to be successful and that support, through my family, friends and the community, has really been supportive.
Q: Your hiring took place back in late February. Was there anything you had to do while you were still teaching at Centralia that you had to start doing here (in Harrisburg)? Or did you have to wait until school was out and just hit the ground running?
A: We got a lot of our orders placed as soon as I was hired. We started doing our shopping and getting a lot of our prices. We started getting a lot of our equipment that we needed, that we had to have to get this thing going. That ran from making improvements to the weight room to getting stuff ready so that as soon as we started in the summer, we could start with football. We didn’t have to wait to get things in. Our uniforms came in and they look great. All of our contacts have been great in helping us out.
Q: Adding onto that, teaching in Centralia doesn’t give you much of an opportunity to meet these kids while school is going on. Did you get a chance to meet the kids before school let out or did you have to wait until the summer break to learn about them?
A: I want to say it was a week or maybe two weeks after I was hired. We started doing after-school weightlifting. I really wanted the kids who were not involved in a spring sport to be there. But there were a couple of baseball players and a couple of track guys that came and were there regularly. It wasn’t like they showed up one day a week. We were going three days a week. They were working hard and they were getting excited about it. I was teaching in Centralia, and once school let out, I would come over here for the weight room and run it for about a couple of hours.
Q: Once the summer picked up, I’m assuming you all were going right at it. You had a camp during one of the first weeks of summer vacation, you’ve had youth camps and you’ve had team camps. How has that been for you this summer, trying to build interest for Harrisburg football?
A: It’s been a little bit of a challenge, just trying to get organized. One of the toughest things is just getting the communication out there, getting the messages out to the kids. I handed out a calendar with important dates for football camps and that kind of stuff. And at times we ended up having some kids say, “Well, I didn’t know about it.” That’s been one of the biggest challenges. The first camp we had was a three-day camp and it was the first full week school was out. It was just kind of an introduction saying, “Hey, this is what we’re doing and this is what it’s going to look like.” It was a lot of meetings, but they were necessary. I’m not real big on having a lot of meeting time. I’m more of a “learn by experience and explain along the way” kind of guy. I think they really benefitted from it. Now that we’re in this camp, we’re going twice a day for a couple weeks. Now we’re getting into more repetition, more fast-paced coaching. We’re coaching on the fly and getting kids a lot of reps. We’re getting them used to playing the game a little bit.
Q: Let’s go back to when you were talking about strength and conditioning. This is a school that has had athletes, but you don’t see many of them in the weight room during the offseason. This seems like it’s something that will be implemented more, since you’re going to be teaching strength and conditioning. How has that process been for this program?
A: During the second full week of the summer, we started the voluntary athletic improvement program. It wasn’t open to just football players, but to all athletes, anybody interested. A group of girls were coming and it was based on improving their athletic performance, not only the strength part in the weight room, but also balance, agility and coordination. We went for two-and-a-half hours a day, four days a week, Monday through Thursday. About half of that time was designated to warm up and learning how to move as an athlete, learning how to control your body. We did a lot of body weight stuff and injury prevention — well, I saw injury prevention, but it was more injury reduction — strengthening those little muscles that are important in stabilizing the joints. And the second half we would spend in the weight room. It wasn’t just an in-and-out deal. It was very detail-oriented exercises and everything was based around improving as an athlete. We weren’t in front of a mirror doing curls. Actually, I can’t think of a time when we ever did one single-joint movement through those seven weeks. It was all multi-joint large-muscle groups, working on strength, stability and power development. We had some pretty good numbers. I want to say my largest group was 20 one day and then there was one day when I had six. We had a really good turnout and I hope as we move along through this process that the kids really buy into it. Hopefully that group becomes larger. I think the kids got a lot out of it.
Q: With your assistant coaches, you’re bringing in Jeff Wardrip, who has been a coach at Fayette, and you bring in Logan Ball, who played under Wardrip at Fayette. When you look at the teachers at Harrisburg, the only other football coach you would’ve had in the system was Dan Bachmeier, who came here to start the program the first time around. You have two great additions to your coaching staff with them (Wardrip and Ball).
A: I do. Coach Wardrip has been great. He teaches here, so it was great to have that connection between myself and the kids throughout the end of the school year. Coach Wardrip has been huge in helping me out. He’s been a great addition to this staff. Coach Ball, he’s young but he has that connection with Coach Wardrip of playing under him. That’s one of the big things that I think is really important, the staff being together on the same page and working together to communicate. When kids see that — and they see everything — your players are going to do that. You always want to preach the right things. Talking is good, but kids are going to learn the most from what they see. When they see a staff working together, they’re more likely to work together.
Q: This is the last week of summer workouts and next week is the mandated MSHSAA “dead period.” On Aug. 12, you’re having your first day of fall practice. Is there a lot of excitement with the kids? They’ve been preparing all summer for this and now they’re finally getting into it. Is there any anxiety for you with that date approaching?
A: I’ll be glad when those days get here. It’ll start getting into a routine of: school, practice, school, practice, school, practice, game. You get that schedule going and you get a lot of the kinks worked out. The kids, it’ll be rough for them learning how to play the game, but at the same time for us coaches, it’ll be rough for us managing the schedule. Being a JV schedule, it’s going to be a bit all over the place. We’ll have a couple Tuesday games, a lot of Monday games and a couple of Friday games. We’re trying to get in that routine of, “this day, we do this,” and the kids know what to expect. That comes back into the communication part. The better we communicate to each other, the more prepared we’re going to be. We’ll have this camp, then we have the week off and right after that, we get going. One thing that helps us out is we don’t play until after Labor Day, so we’ll get a lot of practice time in. That’ll be an adjustment for the kids too. They’re not used to playing a sport where they only have one competition a week. We spend all this time practicing for one game. In basketball, you have two practices and then a game, and then two more practices and then a game. It’s going to be a lot of preparation time for one night.
Q: Let’s transition to your schedule. I know it’s a JV schedule, but you’re playing a lot of programs that, for Class 1 and Class 2, have some top-notch varsity programs. You’re starting off with Tipton, who went to the state semifinals in Class 1, and I’ve seen them have strong JV teams come through. Salisbury, your second game, also made the state semifinals last year at the varsity level. And then you’ll also have some rivalry games in there, with Fayette and Father Tolton. Even though you’ll be a varsity-type team, it’s going to be a really tough schedule.
A: It is. Looking down through it, Tipton, Salisbury, Brookfield are all good. We played Brookfield when I was at Centralia. We (Centralia) played Father Tolton last year at the JV level last year and lost. Westran is traditionally good and South Callaway has been good the last six or seven years. It’s definitely not going to be an easy road and we’re going to have to continue to improve every single week. We don’t really have any room to take steps backward. The one good thing about building this program is that they’re always going to be learning something. X’s and O’s, it’s not going to be really complicated with what we do. It may look complicated, but it’s not complicated for these kids. It’s simple, it’s one or two blocking schemes. It’s going to come down to playing the game, giving great effort and being men of character. Are they going to be able to handle adversity? Are they going to be able to take that hit under the chin, get back up and keep going? It’s going to take one step at a time, one play at a time, one game at a time, one week at a time. You can’t sit back on your heels in this game. When you do, you’ll get knocked down. And it’s going to happen, we’re going to get knocked down. We may get knocked down a lot, but it’s about whether or not we’ll get back up and keep going.
Q: Not only is the high school starting up football, but the middle school is also starting up a football program. Harrisburg has put some teams in the Columbia Youth Football League in the past and in the North Central Youth Football League against several towns in the area. For some of these kids, football won’t be so unfamiliar. Are you one of those coaches who likes to have your high-school system implemented at the middle-school level, or do you not mind the middle school coach doing their own thing and teaching the fundamentals?
A: A little bit of both. As far as plays go, I’m not really concerned about that. I’m not going to be on the sidelines micromanaging my middle school program. Coach (John) Gillman, the head middle school coach, he was actually my coach in middle school. I have full confidence in his abilities to coach football. I know he’s great with fundamentals. He’ll teach the fundamentals, but at the same time, he’ll use our terminology, use our basic stuff, use our formations. That’s stuff we won’t have to reteach a whole lot when they get here (in high school). We’ll be able to move along a little quicker when they already have that basic stuff down. It’s a lot of stuff to remember. We’ll get the middle school to implement our system. What he wants to do within that system is entirely up to him.
Q: When we first talked back in February, you talked about how coming to Harrisburg was intriguing because of the winning attitude and the winning tradition. How well has football been received since you’ve been here and how excited are you to be in a town where they’ve experienced a lot of winning in their background?
A: I’m definitely excited to get a chance to get on the field and start playing. These kids are great competitors. The Booster Club has been great in supporting not only me but the program, developing the program and getting these kids out. A lot of the Booster Club members are coaches of the youth league and they’ve been out, picking my brain. I’ve been trying to help them out as much as I can. Having that support, it’s given that sense of calm, which is really important to have as a head coach when you get close to this time of year. All the work that we’ve done, we’re getting ready to see how it’s going to turn out. The Booster Club has been great, the community has been great. There are really, really good people around here.
Q: You coached some at Centralia and now your going to be a head coach here. What are some of the philosophies you want to instill in your program? What are some of the things you like doing offensively or defensively?
A: Philosophy-wise, there are three things that kids need to learn these days. In the old days, it was kind of expected. These days, you really have to teach it, like “do right.” Do the right thing. It’s so easy to get caught up in whatever is going on, that sometimes the right thing isn’t always the easiest thing. You get made fun of for doing the right thing, for being the guy who does what he’s supposed to do. “Do your best.” I definitely want kids to give their best effort, and it’s not only their best effort on the football field or the practice field, but in class, at home or when they’re doing anything. “Treat people the way you want to be treated.” To some, that may sound like, “We’ll, they’re just going to be a bunch of nice guys.” No. When I was a player, I didn’t want anybody to take it easy on me for anything. I prepared the way I wanted somebody to prepare for me, so that I got their best effort and could say at the end of the game that I played my best against their best, and I was successful. Doing the right thing, doing your best and treating people the way you want to be treated.
We’re really going to pride ourselves on running the football. Right now, like I said, our blocking schemes are going to stay pretty simple. We have two blocking schemes right now, and everything revolves around those blocking schemes. If your kids up front don’t know what they’re doing, then nothing else is going to work. You’re not going to be able to run, you’re not going to be able to throw. And we’ll keep our passing game fairly simple. We’ll run a form of the option, kind of a spread look, but not a spread philosophy. Defensively, we’re going to get after people. We’ll keep things simple to where kids won’t have to think about what they have to do. They can just play, and they can be a playmaker because they won’t have to think, “Do I have to do this or that?” They’ll just go do it. It’s a lot easier to get reps at that stuff if you don’t teach a bunch of different new things. We’re just trying to get kids comfortable in the game, comfortable in their sport and comfortable at their position.
Q: If you take a look at the various sports here, the basketball programs each have a pair of state titles. The gym is always pretty packed. Baseball is just coming off its first district championship in eight years. Softball has won three straight district championships as well. Now you adding something new for the fan base. I know, for the first year, it’ll mostly be Monday night games, but starting next year, games will be on Friday nights. I imagine for you, it’s going to feel like the first time you ever stepped on the field as a Centralia Panther. And for this community, this is something that has been a long time coming. What do you think it will be like, that first time you step out on the field on Sept. 3, that first JV game against Tipton? For you as your first game as a head coach, what do you imagine it will be like?
A: I imagine there will be a lot of excitement in the air. I imagine it will be a Friday night atmosphere on a Monday or a Tuesday. It’s going to be great for the kids because the kids that have been here have been working their butts off. It’ll be good for them to see that there are people who support this program and will come out and watch them play. We have plans in the future of increasing the seating and increasing our facilities, but right now it’s a bare-bones deal. You’re going to come out and see a small scoreboard, small stands and people sitting in lawn chairs. That’s great. As many people as we can get out here to support these kids for all their hard work and effort I think will do good things for them. It’s going to continue to motivate them.