HOOPESTON — When 22 prospects showed up for the first day of Hoopeston Area’s football practice, second-year coach Michl Kearney decided it was time to get to work.
Besides the coaching portion of his job, he set out to expand the roster. Within a week, there were 31 Cornjerkers at practice.
“I’ve been trying to recruit the building,” Kearney said. “I’ve been talking to kids at registration.”
The immediate result was to avoid a loss the school didn’t need.
“There was talk about canceling the JV team, but we’ll keep things going,” Kearney said.
He was even willing to add to the squad after school started on Monday.
“If a kid wants to play, we’ll bring him out,” Kearney said.
Many of the newest squad members may not come into play when the regular season opens on Friday. On the roster are 15 first-year football players.
“I’ll dress everybody,” Kearney said, “but there are about 13 or 14 who are varsity ready.”
Though it is counter to logical thinking, instead of scheduling extra practice time during the preseason, Kearney cut back. The traditional two-a-day practices were trimmed to one daily evening workout.
“The numbers were so low (at the outset of practice) and they were dragging. If we had two-a-days, I was afraid we’d lose kids,” Kearney said.
The key, he said, was to make efficient use of the time together.
“We got in what we needed to get in,” he said.
Though inexperience is prevalent, there’s a corps of experienced Cornjerkers. Twelve seniors are on the roster. Three are first-year players, but two are mainstays who are regarded as two of Vermilion County’s finest small-school athletes: quarterback Terrence Poke and running back Robbie Irvin.
“If the front line can keep them protected, they can make plays,” Kearney said.
Irvin’s combined rushing and receiving yards last year totaled 961. Of the team’s total offense, Poke and Irvin combined for 68 percent of it.
Along with receiver Zach Drollinger, the trio figures to be the marquee players this year.
Practice has been geared around creating depth.
“Each kid is learning two positions,” Kearney said. “We’ve moved people around to see what they can do.
“We’re trying to figure who fits well together.”
Kearney is toying with the idea of using Poke as a slot if either Aiden Berg or Connor Cline shows he can handle the quarterback position.
“We’re trying to find the puzzle pieces,” Kearney said.
In order to add some experience to the offensive line, the coach took two potential runners out of the backfield. Guards Nick Papanek and Matthew Watson are converted backs.
Among the others in contention for line duty are tackles Austin Hickman and Brandon Umbanhowar and center Cody Inman. Freshmen Jacob Varns and Trenton Lanter could work their way onto the field as could first-year junior Alex Golladay.
“Our offensive and defensive lines are getting better, but we’re very, very small,” Kearney said.
The coach will be careful not to put his inexperienced players in positions where it will be tough to succeed.
“I don’t want to put kids who’ve never played on the field on Friday where they could get hurt or discouraged and don’t come back,” he said.
Hoopeston Area is trying to build a program which has suffered through 16 consecutive sub-.500 seasons. Last fall’s 3-6 record was the best in eight years, but five underclassmen who started aren’t back, either voluntarily or due to violations of school rules.
“When you take five or six juniors and seniors off the team, it really hits you hard,” Kearney said.
Joining Kearney on the coaching staff are Matt Daniel, Justin Gumm and Dave Page.
The Cornjerkers open the season at 7 p.m. on Friday at Bement against South Piatt. Three of the team’s first four games will be played on the road.