The Catholic Central practice field reveals more than a trace of the team’s troubles. Bags on the ground represent where a few of the players should be standing. The Irish don’t have enough players to practice 11 on 11.
Practice is supposed to be about simulating two things: what the other team might do and what your team intends to do. For the Irish, it’s doing the best you can with too few players and making sure no one gets hurt.
“The hardest thing the last couple years is trying to practice,” coach Mike McKenna said.
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On Aug. 1, there were 19 players on the roster. Two players have since had knee surgery. Other injuries have left the Irish with 12 healthy players at the end of two games. Two weeks ago 14 players were dressed for Friday night. Last week at Southeastern there were 15.
The results have been predictable. The Irish are 0-8 and have lost 12 straight. They started last season 3-4, but injuries piled up and they were shut out their in their final two games against Greeneview and Cedarville.
This season the Irish are starting four freshmen and two sophomores. They have been shut out three times and scored 46 points, including 20 in a loss to Greenon. Their 34-6 loss last Friday at Southeastern was their closest game. However, they trailed 27-0 at halftime and didn’t score until the final minutes.
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“They’re enthusiasm hasn’t lacked, and there’s no quit in these guys,” McKenna said. “I tell them to play as hard as they can for as long as they can.”
McKenna and his staff enjoyed many great seasons at Central. McKenna was a longtime assistant to Steve DeWitt and is in his 28th year in the program. This is McKenna’s third season as head coach.
“It is very hard,” he said. “Because for me and the other coaches – they played for us – it is very difficult to see where we’re at right now.”
But McKenna does see an end to the trend. This year’s junior high team, made up of seventh- and eighth-graders, has 28 players. He’s been told to expect as many as 14 freshmen next season. The team will still be young, but the numbers will be a sign that the program can heal.
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For now, McKenna and his staff do what they can to prepare their team for Friday night. The lessons are in perseverance, fighting through injuries and learning the game.
“When you have so few kids, it’s the little battles that they’re trying to win,” McKenna said.
Sometimes that’s avoiding a shutout. With a running clock limiting their chances Friday at Southeastern, senior quarterback Jayden Borden lofted a long pass to senior wide receiver Mykah Eichie late in the fourth quarter. Eichie outjumped the defender for the catch and turned and ran for a 59-yard touchdown.
“I ain’t got any quit in me,” Borden said. “None of us do – not at all.”
Borden is the team leader. He says his coaches are a constant source of encouragement on and off the field. In turn, Borden is determined to lead his team no matter what deficits, disappointments or injuries it faces.
After McKenna’s short postgame talk on the field Friday, the players and coaches huddled tight and recited the Lord’s Prayer. Then they broke on “1-2-3, family.”
“We play for our family, our brothers,” Borden said. “Regardless of whether we’re winning or losing we love the game. So we’re not going to stop.”