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Phoenix seek to rise in new football co-op for Freeman/Marion/Freeman Academy

The new program will play in Class 9AA and open the season on Friday at Burke.

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The Freeman/Marion/Freeman Academy football team practices on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022 in Marion in preparation for the team's inaugural season.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic
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FREEMAN, S.D. — On paper, it is Year 1 and Game 1 that arrives for the Freeman/Marion/Freeman Academy football program on Friday night.

But head coach Dustin Tschetter tries not to look at it as starting something new. Instead, he leans on the experience many of the players on the 23-player roster have knowing each other and playing other sports together. The team opens the season at Burke on Friday.

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The Freeman/Marion/Freeman Academy Phoenix
Courtesy image

“A lot of these kids know each other,” Tschetter said. “Freeman Academy and Marion are co-oped for basketball. In Freeman, we play basketball with Marion as a younger kids. A lot of the kids have played together at a young age with (South Dakota) Junior Football, or through some of the travel teams. I don’t see it as a new start so much, but at the same time, it is a new identity.”

Tschetter, who was an all-state defensive back for Freeman and played with the Flyers during their run of four straight Class 9A championships in the late 1990s, recently was the primary junior-high football coach for Canistota/Freeman and was a varsity assistant in 2021. He’s also been involved with Canistota/Freeman’s junior football programs, which have been highly successful.

“Those young kids we’ve coached, I’m going to miss seeing them. But there is excitement here and we’re pretty young,” Tschetter said. “Our freshman in Freeman have had a lot of success and we’ve had some (South Dakota) Junior Football titles. … In my mind, this isn’t completely a rebuild like some teams go through because we have some athletes.”

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The home debut of the team is Aug. 26 against Iroquois/Lake Preston, with other Freeman home games on Sept. 23 against Colome and Oct. 14 versus Florence/Henry, while Marion will be the home site when the Phoenix host Gayville-Volin on Sept. 30.

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The Freeman/Marion/Freeman Academy football team practices on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022 in Marion in preparation for the team's inaugural season.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

The team — which will play in Class 9AA and in the Great Plains Conference — is named the Phoenix, the immortal bird from Greek mythology. The symbolism of its meaning — a bird that rises from the ashes of its predecessor — was purposeful when it was proposed by a student in the co-op. It beat out Mavericks and Trailblazers as the new team’s name.

The Phoenix bring together an interesting history of co-ops and partnerships. Freeman comes out of a previously successful co-op with Canistota, winning three-straight Class 9A championships in 2018, 2019 and 2020, and taking second place in 2021 in Class 9AA.

The Canistota School Board voted in December 2021 to dissolve the co-op, known as the Canistota/Freeman Pride, over concerns that the co-op would have to jump to 11-man football in a reclassification process and with a belief that Canistota could be competitive on its own.

The partnership between Canistota and Freeman was started after Freeman had continued issues fielding a team on its own, due to low participation in 2014 and 2015 before joining Canistota in 2016.

Marion has had a long history of football co-ops, including an eight-year partnership with Menno that ended in 2020, plus past teams with Hurley and playing on its own as the Bears. Freeman Academy and Marion played with Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan in 2021 under the Seahawks name, contributing a handful of players.

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In terms of experience, the past coops mean some of FMFA’s players have gotten a taste of the playoffs and the state championship game, with three players on BEE’s Class 11B second-place roster in 2021 and four on Canistota/Freeman’s state runner-up team in 2021.

“It has gone really well so far. We’re young, don’t get me wrong,” Tschetter said. “We can only practice against each other right now, so what we’ll look like on Friday night and how we’ll play, we don’t know. … But we have a good group of kids working together so far.”

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Tschetter said he expects that athleticism to show in games but said the team is not physically imposing.

“We have very athletic kids. We’re going to be small,” Tschetter said. “Our offensive line, if they can hold up, I like our chances. (In our first game), we’re starting a freshman, a sophomore and a senior on the offensive line. How quickly those freshmen can develop is going to say a lot about how successful we can be on the field.”

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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