While the junior high students are inside practicing for their first basketball games, the Southeast High School varsity football team and Lancer Cheerleaders are relaxing outside, waiting to load the bus for the final game of their season.
The bus arrives, bags are packed in, and the Lancer student-athletes slowly trickle on.
“Does anyone want an orange,” asks Levi Kendrick. The junior waves around a couple of sweet smelling oranges and from the back of the bus someone simply replies “those are nasty.”
A few moments later, somebody starts singing Survivor – “He’s got the eye of the tiger, the thrill of the fight” – a few of the players chuckle, then as patiently as possible for a group of teenage boys, wait as the rest of the team loads into the bus. All are still buzzing about the Kansas City Royals winning Game 2 of the World Series the night before.
Eventually, Head Coach Jerrod Hansen does roll call. Nothing out of the ordinary – just having to occasionally repeat some of the kids names because they already have their headphones on.
“Colton – Colton – Colton,” Coach Hansen politely says.
Colton Paasch’s twin brother, Cameron, while laughing says – “Just keep saying his name till he finally answers.
“Oh – here,” the senior finally answers.
The bus pulls out of the Southeast High School parking lot and heads west to Cherryvale for the final varsity football game of the 2015 season. Only a handful of the squad of 26 players had varsity experience when the season started. For this night’s game three of them are injured and unable to play.
Less than three hours from kickoff against the soon to be 9-1 Chargers, the bus is quiet. Some are quietly having conversations. Others are fiddling with their phones, playing games, watching videos, or changing songs to listen to. Most are just trying to get a little rest in after the long school day before the game.
The most noise is coming from the front of the bus, where Coach Hansen, Defensive Coordinator Frank Pittman and Line Coach Nick Cheney Sr. discuss everything but football.
Even the team’s manager, senior Ariel Leone, is sitting back, her eyes closed, just trying to rest before the game.
Senior Sam Holsinger is wide awake and he just stares. His back against the wall of the bus, the big man glances around to see what the others are doing, and then looks outside of the bus at the farm houses passing by.
As the bus goes around the Parsons bypass, even the coaches quiet down. Coach Pittman leans back and tries to get in a quick nap as well. Senior Chandler Jackson lies down and tries to curl up in his seat, all six foot six inches of him. His feet are on the seat across from him, awkwardly trying to hold him into place.
About 40 minutes away from Cherryvale the bus becomes totally silent.
It’s been a long, exhausting season for the winless Southeast Lancers. Nearly every opponent had almost twice as many players on their sideline – a few had much more than that. Despite fatigue and being hurt, many Lancers continued to play because they didn’t want to let their teammates down.
A few players did not make the trip because they are in Louisville, Kentucky for the National FFA Convention. Everybody else is on the bus.
Nobody will say it, though it’s obvious to even the most casual observer, that the team is ready for the football season to be over. Since there is no school the next day – a Friday – both students and staff alike are clearly ready for the three day weekend.
The bus rolls into Cherryvale, where Chargers flags are hanging on every corner downtown. It’s their final home game of the season so it’s Senior Night.
Heads start popping up throughout the bus.
In what becomes a perfect metaphor for how the Lancers football season has gone – the team left on time, early actually, but misses its turn and until somebody can get a cell signal, they wind through Cherryvale and even out of town. Injured for nearly the entire season, it’s senior Adam Martinie who comes to the rescue. He has a cell signal so he guides the driver until they finally get to the high school so that the players can change.
About thirty minutes later they are loaded back onto the bus and heading for the football field nearly a mile away. Again, they wind through town and make it to the football field with only about an hour before kickoff is scheduled – an hour later than they would prefer. The Lancers finally start warming up in the cold night air.
Fortunately, Cherryvale’s Senior Night ceremony runs a little long so the Lancers end up having a little more time to prepare. It’s one of the few breaks the Lancers have received all year.
The closest game all season was the Southeast homecoming – a 10 point loss to the Northeast Vikings. The Lancers would end their season 0-9, allowing 373 points and scoring only 67.
Defensive Coordinator Frank Pittman is also the district’s Athletic Director and has coached football for 34 years.
“There’s been a lot of highs and a lot of lows – this has been a low, but I sure respect those kids a heck of a lot for what they’ve gone through,” Coach Pittman said. “It’s so easy to jump ship when you’re losing. During bad situation, good things rise to the top. And we didn’t win any games – bad situation; but we saw character rise to the top.”
For the most part, the game in Cherryvale goes the same way as nearly every other game this season – filled with turnovers, a few penalties that couldn’t come at a worse time, explosive plays by the opposing offense and nobody on the Southeast side with the speed to catch up, and a running clock in the second half. On this cold, windy Thursday night in October, they would be shut out, and lose 49 to 0 – the second week in a row the Lancers lost by that score.
It’s not something that will show up on the scoreboard or in the MaxPreps stats, but if competition reveals character, the character of the Southeast Lancers was revealed for all to see near the end of the fourth quarter of that final game of the 2015 season.
The Cherryvale crowd roared as a player less than five feet tall sprinted out onto the field. The Lancer offense on the field asked what was going on, learned the young man was a freshman with a form of autism and was finally getting some playing time.
The Southeast team immediately hatched a plan and informed the defense.
Both squads lined up – a Cherryvale defensive lineman guided their new player where to go – the ball was snapped, bobbled, and hit the ground. Junior running back Colton Trejo scooped up the ball and froze. With some help from a teammate the young Cherryvale lineman took Trejo to the ground – an official tackle for loss.
The Lancer fans were unaware of the specifics at the time but they knew something was up – and together, Cherryvale and Southeast fans cheered.
“That was a pretty neat deal I think for the people that were there,” Coach Pittman said. “It was a special moment in his life and a very neat and understanding part we were able to fulfill for him, and the kids did an exceptional job. Nobody was upset, they understood. They just did it.”
With eyes glassed over, a few weeks later Coach Hansen told that story with pride to those in attendance at the end of season Lancers Fall Sports Banquet.
“They showed me why I still coach this game and love it so much – because of the character and integrity of the kids,” Coach Hansen said. Ultimately at the end of the day, yeah you want to score points, but what really matters is high character, taking care of your business, and they showed me that. Against Colgan we got throttled and all of a sudden we go over and shake his hand and make sure he’s okay. Against Cherryvale we were getting killed, but our kids didn’t care, they just wanted to make that other kid’s day. Stuff like that just shows you the kids have.”
The Colgan incident Coach Hansen is referring to occurred on Thursday September 24. A Southeast ball carrier was ran out of bounds and ran into St. Mary’s-Colgan Associate Athletic Director Virgil Winn, who was on the sideline. Both teams took a knee as trainers tended to Mr. Winn. Following the game several Lancer coaches and players checked on Mr. Winn. A “Get Well” card was also sent to him.
“Our kids went over there and were concerned – that was big – our kids know how to handle and represent themselves,” Coach Pittman said. “Situations like that come up in every ballgame. When you’re getting beat by a running clock you still play – character. You run over a gentleman on the sideline and you’re sincerely concerned about his wellbeing – character. An autistic player on another football team and you want him to have a tackle because he wasn’t able to have one all year – character. And the biggie – zero and nine, they kept playing – character. No quit. I’m very proud of them.”
“Some of the kids that started the year were not very fluent in a lot of stuff,” Coach Hansen said. “They didn’t know how to line up. They didn’t know how to step, how to block. They improved drastically as the year went on. They figured out how to line up, who they were supposed to cover. They figured out what their footwork was supposed to be and they corrected that.”
Throughout the season there have been several sparks of excitement by the Lancers. Sophomore Austin Hunt and seniors Cameron Paasch and Chandler Jackson have each exploded through the line for long runs and kickoff returns. Senior Dylan Lawrence made more than one “I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it” acrobatic catch. And every play was the Super Bowl for senior lineman Tucker Moseley, even if the opposing quarterback was simply taking a knee.
“Woo hoo – let’s go get ‘em boys!” Moseley would yell, even in the 4th quarter of a blowout loss with a running clock.
Most of the kids, like seniors Clint Center, Davin Elkins, Sam Holsinger, Andy Long, Colton Paasch and Jesse Ross quietly worked as hard as they could and did what was expected of them.
At least six Southeast seniors have offers to play collegiate ball – mostly for junior colleges: Sam Holsinger, Chandler Jackson, Dylan Lawrence, Tucker Moseley, and Cameron and Colton Paasch. They have an opportunity to continue to play if they want it, despite the winless record and their school not exactly being known as a football factory.
Whether or not those student-athletes choose to follow that opportunity or not, Coach Pittman said all of the players have learned that, no matter the circumstances, you have to finish what you started. And that, he said, is something that will help them throughout life.
“It’s part of respect and character – you’ve got to finish – we talked about it all the time in halftime – ‘you have to finish’ – I’d tell them on the sideline ‘you’ve got to finish,’” said Coach Pittman. “It will be a great tool for them later in life that they can use as an advantage. I know it wasn’t fun to go through by any means, for parents too, but it’ll be a very positive tool that they understand, that will carry over through life, and I think that’ll be a positive for them and that’ll be a plus. True character always comes out.”
Southeast is using the “don’t quit” attitude of the high schoolers to inspire the junior high students as the football program continues to move forward. Having small football squads allowed Southeast Junior High to practice with Southeast High School this season.
“In the best interest of the young kids we combined junior high and high school practices so they could work out together, they could do some of the stretches and drills together,” Coach Pittman said. “That was really the big thing, bring them together to bond with the high school and bond with the coaches, and the same thing for the high school to bond with the junior high. It was a give and take and that was the main idea behind it. It worked out really well and we plan to continue to do that.”
Coach Hansen said practicing together quickens the learning process, especially being able to teach the junior high students the terminology earlier, and shows them what they will be doing in the future.
“We’re working on just trying to streamline that process and that is why the junior high is doing similar types of stuff, that way we can try to develop them sooner,” Coach Hansen said. “That way when they get to high school we have a baseline to start with and hopefully we can build on that.”
“That’s part of showing leadership skills and understanding and the high schoolers did a good job with that,” Coach Pittman said. “They did a good job mentoring those younger kids and that’s also part of life.”
Once the football season was over, Coach Hansen spoke with the 8th graders – his future freshmen – about the season and what it means to be a Lancer.
“One of the things we hang our hat on is just work ethic and hard work,” Coach Hansen said. “We’re going to have to outwork everybody else that we play because we don’t have quite as many kids as everybody else we play. So that means our kids are going to have to work harder and they’re going to have be able to handle more responsibilities because of that. Keep working hard.”