By this point in the year, with nearly a month into the fall semester, football teams ranging from pee-wee to high school have already seen plenty of action on the field. However, for the Whitwell Middle School Tigers, their season has only just begun – a reality that was almost non-existent.
Up until last Thursday’s game against Bledsoe County, the Tigers were close to canceling their season because they didn’t have enough players to field a team.
Putting together a football team was an issue that Whitwell Middle School principal Josh Holtcamp said had been “dominating” the early part of the school year that just began on Aug. 10, and that it even dated back all the way to spring practices.
“We had spring practice and we didn’t have a lot of interest,” Holtcamp said. “We just thought that would change. I encouraged [head coach Joey Neuman] just to keep thinking about it, praying about it, hoping it would change. And then, come summer, we constantly had just five or six [kids] that were showing up. So, the odds were not looking good for us.”
In mid-July, Marion County School Director Dr. Mark Griffith said he was approached by Holtcamp regarding the roster issues, where he thought then the middle school Tigers football team were “hovering around 15” players, he said. Holtcamp mentioned the idea to Griffith of co-oping with neighboring county Sequatchie County, but nothing ever materialized as there was belief the season could still be salvaged.
Neuman wanted to keep trying to put a team together. “We want these kids to stick together and keep them here,” he said.
By Aug. 10, the team had already canceled one game and would have to cancel a second one the following week.
By that point, canceling the season seemed imminent. But Neuman and Holtcamp didn’t want to give up on the kids who did want to play, so they began searching for more players to put together a team.
“I don’t ever not want to have a team,” Holtcamp said.
Holtcamp believed that when school started back that maybe there were kids that had previously lacked the capabilities to join the team due to lack of transportation or money who would then come out and participate. He would offer said kids an opportunity to play for free, using money from eventual fundraising to help cover the cost.
“What we’re going to assure the students is… is that there’s going to be no charge to them for playing football,” Holtcamp said, “…It’s going to be absolutely free of charge this year. I’m going to help as school principal that no child is going to be turned away due to that [lack of money]. No child is going to be turned away due to they can’t get here. We’re going to make things happen the best we can.”
Once school started back, Holtcamp said he and Neuman put a plan together to hold a special practice for new tryouts.
Holtcamp said the initial practice went “okay,” but the second one did not, where only eight students showed up.
“We had a poor showing the second time,” Holtcamp said. “Parents were just not comfortable with the lack of students out there. So the safety factor played an issue. … [We were] very fortunate to have those parents that understood, hey, we may not can make this happen.”
Although Neuman said all he needed was 11 kids to construct a team, really, the minimum number needed “without causing too many problems” was around 18-20.
Finding enough students to come out and play was challenging enough, but other challenges would continue to unfold before the Tigers could actually field a team.
Still in the midst of a hot and humid month of August, any new players added to the team would need to go through heat acclimatization, per TSSAA rules.
Heat acclimatization is a process that involves student-players getting accustomed to warm weather conditions by gradually increasing their workload to improve their heat tolerance.
According to TSSAA rules, new players have to go through a five day process for heat acclimatization, which is as follows: Day 1: Helmets Only – Day 2: Helmets Only – Day 3: Helmets and Shoulder Pads Only (No pants or tights below the knee) – Day 4: Helmets and Shoulder Pads Only (No pants or tights below the knee) – Day 5: Helmets and Shoulder Pads Only (No pants or tights below the knee).
There were also other safety issues, including having new players, some who had never played football previously, quickly learn general fundamentals to insure they weren’t put in dangerous situations they weren’t prepared for.
“We’re looking out for their safety, that’s the bottom line,” Holtcamp said.
On Aug. 15, Neuman said they finally had enough players and that they were going to play Bledsoe County on Aug. 24. But even that wasn’t easy.
The week leading up to the game, the heat index was hitting around 100 degrees, where once again TSSAA rules came into play. The players weren’t allowed to wear any protective equipment or make contact during practices that week. One practice was almost canceled all together due to the extreme heat conditions.
Finally, after two games canceled and endless uncertainty, through prayer and perseverance, Neuman suited up 18 Whitwell Middle School Tigers for the first time in 2023.
The Tigers lost 38-20 but “we saw a bunch of good things,” Neuman said. “I saw for how little of kids we got, experience levels – I couldn’t haven’t been, truthfully, more impressed with how we played. It didn’t go the way we wanted, of course. With the numbers and everything, I definitely saw some pride and fight in these kids that you got to be happy with.”
Neuman said that out of his 18 players, four or five of them had never even played football before. Not only that, but for some of them, Thursday night’s game was the first time they had put on pads due to not being acclimatized to the heat.
Last year, the middle school football Tigers had 24 kids on the team, but 17 of those were eighth graders who have now gone on to high school, causing this year’s struggling numbers.
“Having such a heavy eighth grade class is great during the season, but you kind of reap the sorrows afterward,” Neuman said. “It’s a quick turnaround.”
Neuman said that out of an eighth grade class that has 85 total students, only eight of those are on his team currently. The rest of his team consists of a large majority of seventh graders and even a few sixth graders.
“There’s a bunch of different factors to it,” Neuman said when asked why there was a huge drop off in interest this season. “Whether kids want to play different sports, whether they think they’re going to get hurt or they don’t know anything about football. I wish we could get more out here but there’s not much more we can do besides ask.”
Luckily for next year’s Tigers team, Neuman said they have about 28 kids coming up from the pee-wee team.
But Neuman is building something now – he’s not waiting for the future. He is preparing for it, though, even if it is painful.
Four days after their opening game, the Tigers would be back on the gridiron, hosting North Jackson. It was unconventional, having two games only four days apart, but so has been the Tigers 2023 season, where the roster and schedule have continuously changed.
Unfortunately, the Tigers lost the game 50-0, making them 0-2.
“We lost, but I saw some really good things from the kids,” Neuman said. “We haven’t quit yet and we don’t plan on quitting anytime soon.”
The Tigers next game will be Sept. 7 at 6:00 p.m. against Grundy County.