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Awareness leads to more efficient first day of hitting for Kernels

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Mitchell running back Parker Phillips slips through the defense while carrying the ball as Carson Fahey, right, gives chase during practice on Tuesday afternoon. (Matt Gade / Republic)

At one time, the first day of full-contact practice was the most exciting day of the preseason for high school football players and coaches.

After five days of running through conditioning drills and going through plays, the sixth day is reserved to play the sport in its most complete form. With increased awareness of head injuries, the amount of contact in practices has been limited.

Despite being relegated to 20 minutes of contact on the season’s first full-padded practice on Tuesday, Mitchell players and coaches were still looking forward to the chance to hit with no restrictions.

“Just to go live and get a taste of it is in an important part of the process,” MHS head coach Kent VanOverschelde said. “We’ve gotten into playing this game smarter and safer, but just as hard as we always have. We just avoid some of that unnecessary stuff. I think our players are used to our system and they trust we’re going to get them ready to play football on Friday nights.”

Historically, football coaches used the first practice in full pads as a day to weed out those not as willing to take or seek out contact. They would use hitting drills to make players tougher.

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Gone are gladiator-like drills such as bull-in-the-ring, where the team encircles one player and they take turns hitting the man in the middle.

Such practices were not only dangerous, but had no resemblance to a game situation. Not only could those drills lead to injury, but also created bullying-type situations, with bigger or more skilled players, seeking out less-gifted players.

“Football is different in a lot of ways, but that difference makes football better,” VanOverschelde said. “It makes a better experience for our players. It doesn’t guarantee you’re going to avoid injury, but to lessen that so our kids can experience Friday nights and go through their season with less injuries that occur in practice, makes for a better experience.”

Mitchell ensures players competing in contact drills are evenly matched in skill and size, while full-contact team sessions include starters against starters and backups against backups.

Still the players were looking forward to competing in the now-toned down contact drills, before returning to focusing on preparing for the first game of the season against Douglas on Aug. 31.

“I think it’s a day everybody looks forward to,” MHS senior Nick Robinson said. “We’ve been working so long and so hard to get to this day, so we could finally hit.”

While rules have managed to decrease senseless and dangerous contact, Mitchell -- like most football teams -- is still looking for the players who are willing to seek and absorb hits in a safe manner, considering the game still revolves around blocking and tackling.

“Those guys come to the forefront in just about everything we do,” VanOverschelde said. “Those are the guys that enjoy the workouts in the weight room and buy-in. Technically, we coach everybody up. Those guys are apparent on just about every football team.”

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