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Kernels embrace high expectations on first day

Mitchell Kernel offensive linemen Carter Max, right, and Riley Szabo, second from right, lead the rest of the offensive line in a drill during the first practice of the 2018 season on Thursday morning. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The start of the Kernel football season arrived Thursday morning, as Mitchell High School held its first practice of the 2018 campaign.

The Kernels finished 7-4 a season ago, reaching the Class 11AA semifinals for the third year in a row. They are also two years removed from winning the state championship.

With Mitchell returning its top four rushers from last season, four of its top five tacklers and a third-year starter at quarterback in Kiel Nelson, the expectations are undoubtedly high and the team is set to embrace them.

"Jokingly, I just ignore them. In reality it's this group of kids, it's this group of coaches that have set that expectation," MHS head coach Kent VanOverschelde said. "With that expectation, we just have to embrace it. We have to understand that it's a challenge that's in front of us and it's what we want as well. That's what we've intended within this program—to be one of the top programs in the state."

A year after winning the state title, Mitchell dropped a home heartbreaker to Harrisburg in the semifinals, 20-7.

The season-ending loss has fueled Mitchell since Nov. 3, 2017 and the Kernels are ready to get back on the field after stewing throughout the offseason.

"We're excited to get back on the field already," MHS senior lineman Carter Max said. "It's only day one, but I think we were all ready right then and there (after the loss) to get back out there."

On the first day of practice, VanOverschelde expressed the importance of unity and a team-first mentality more than anything else, stressing players be less concerned about individual statistics rather than wins and losses.

One of the areas within that ideology to keep an eye on as the season progresses is how the Mitchell rushing attack unfolds. After Spencer Neugebauer set state records in 2016, the Kernels used a more balanced approach last season without him.

Three players ran for at least 500 yards last season, with Drew Kitchens leading the way with 907 yards and 11 touchdowns on 207 carries, while Nelson ran for 676 yards and Carson Max had 506, with each finding the end zone six times.

The key this season is to see whether they continue with a balanced approach each game or if VanOverschelde goes with the hot hand.

"We have to have that unselfish attitude and we have to have that trust that, depending on the situation, we're going to put the right guys in the right situation to be successful," VanOverschelde said. "We have some versatility, especially in our run game. It's a long season so we don't have to overwork one individual."

After the first practice, the coaching staff was optimistic about the team on the field, but before the first game, Mitchell must find an identity, whether it's having a bellcow running back, by committee or even using the passing game more frequently than in years past.

The remainder of the preseason will be focused on finding the proper game plan when the Kernels kick off the season on Aug. 25 against Watertown on the newly-installed turf at Joe Quintal Field .

"We can't go into that first game with multiple plans and then see what's going to work," VanOverschelde said. "We have to identify—within the next week and a half—what we can do and what we do well and then hang our hat on that."