Starting a high school football program from scratch has provided some challenges for St. Joseph’s head coach Dave Carson, but the former Bellefonte ninth-grade coach has no regrets.
“How many chances do you get to coach on Friday night?” Carson said.
With a roster of just 18, the Wolves certainly have their work cut out for them. Logistical issues have also proven difficult, but Carson has a clear message for his team.
“I tell them, ‘Let’s be respectable,’” he said. “In this inaugural season, let’s compete with everybody. Be in every ball game. Let’s condition like crazy and come together as a family and not just a team and let’s look out for each other.”
A few players followed Carson over from Bellefonte, whose varsity team went 2-8 last season.
Running back Nunu Buey, quarterback Phil Fenstermacker and Mike Jabco followed after Carson took the job.
Previous relationships between players and coach could help as the Wolves attempt to build a new team.
“Oh, definitely it does,” Carson said. “You know what they can do. You know what their limits are and you know what kind of kids they are. So it definitely helps. It’s just like a family here. It has to be.”
Quarterback Jack Driscoll, who played at State College last season, is also on the roster and is competing for a starting spot.
“They’re in the middle of battling that thing out,” Carson said. “But like I tell them, we’ve got room. Everybody’s going to play everywhere.”
Carson calls the team’s makeup a “hodgepodge” of kids from State College, Bald Eagle Area and Bellefonte, which is quite the contrast and reflects one reason St. Joseph’s wanted to add high school football.
Athletic director Jeff Wheeler said Our Lady of Victory, the middle school that feeds into the high school, lost around 10 students per year to other schools because there wasn’t a high school football presence.
They tried to field a middle school team, but Wheeler said kids still left.
“We knew if we were going to make this work we had to go varsity,” Wheeler said. “That was the only way to maintain the kids we already had and attract other kids.”
Both Wheeler and Carson say the key for long-term sustainability is success.
That could prove difficult early, with just 18 players in a physically taxing sport like football.
Practices will consistently run with seven-on-seven drills and little hitting so that players stay fresh for the regular season.
“And it kind of retards your growth because you’re not getting full contact and you’re not getting the full look you’d like to have,” Carson said.
A scrimmage Aug. 17 against Clarion-Limestone gave the head coach a better idea of what he has before the Aug. 31 home opener against Mercyhurst-Prep.
Buey, a speedster with make-you-miss ability, figures to start at running back after netting more than 500 yards with five touchdowns for Bellefonte last season. Fenstermacker played sparingly behind Red Raiders starter Jordan Fye last season.
No matter who emerges at quarterback, Carson isn’t looking for one guy to carry the load.
“I hate to throw out names because it’s going to be such a team effort for us this year,” he said. “It’s one of those situations where you have 18 guys, so 18 guys are going to get a lot of playing time.”
Among other challenges to face was getting the team’s field ready in time. The Wolves’ den was still being prepared behind the school as Carson spoke on the phone last week. The goal posts were set to arrive days later.
Trees had already been cleared, a press box was erected and the field was leveled in certain areas. Equipment costs and scheduling were also issues.
“We’re getting there,” Carson said. “This is definitely all new.”
Now that the team is here, Carson wants to compete now, but he also wants to grow at the middle school level and create a long-term feeder plan for sustainability. Continued support from the community would also help.
“A little success would go a long way,” Carson said. “The school is a fantastic school and there are opportunities here. We hope everybody supports us. In the community around us, we’ve been extremely well received.”