PARCHMENT — Nothing beats Friday night lights, said Parchment senior Will Kovl.
“The fans, the atmosphere, scoring a touchdown, nothing beats it. It’s amazing,” he exclaimed.
What is amazing is that Kovl, who has become one of the Panthers’ top receivers, never played football before this year.
In fact, Kovl is one of nine seniors who are playing their first season of football for coach Brian Huberty.
During the summer, athletic director Brennan Davis heard rumblings about the seniors trying out for the team.
“My initial thought was disbelief because I hear a lot, so my mindset was ‘I'll believe it when I see it,’” Davis said.
“Once football started working out this summer, I heard these kids were actually attending and at that point it became a reality. We have a quality senior group, and those kids have a very strong bond. It is a special group of young people.”
Senior tight end/linebacker Jacob Guzior said it was definitely a group decision.
“At first it was a joke,” he said. “Eventually it turned into ‘We are actually playing football now.’”
The other senior newbies are kicker/cornerback Mason Ragan, wide receiver/linebacker Blake Smith, defensive back Breckyn Bootland, defensive end/tight end Ashtian McClanahan, wide receiver Tanner Slack, kicker McKaylah Shank and team manager McKenna Nunn.
Huberty, who teaches in Plainwell and is the interim coach at Parchment, said he is not sure where the team (4-4 overall, 2-3 Southwestern Athletic Conference Lakeshore) would be without those nine.
“We would have had a team, but we would have been a lot younger and we would have had to pull a few more kids up, and that’s not what you want to do,” he said.
“You don’t want young kids having to come compete against 18- and 17-year-old kids.”
Kovl said senior quarterback Aaron Jasiak was instrumental in peaking his interest in playing this season after Jasiak scored the winning touchdown in last year’s homecoming game.
“I remember it like it was yesterday; it was awesome,” Kovl said. “The student section was bigger than ever, and I was in the student section.
“We rushed the field. He told me to play football (my senior year), and the story wrote itself.”
One aspect of the game was a bit daunting for Guzior.
“At first (hitting) was hard to get used to. Now I do like hitting people,” he laughed.
“It was a rough first week. By second week we were starting to get the hang of it, and by week three it felt like I’d been playing a while.”
Bootland is using football to help him with hockey.
“Hockey gave me a base idea of hitting in football, but hitting in football is going to take my physicality in hockey to another level, which is my biggest weakness on ice,” he said.
However, “the biggest shock for me was how analytical it is to make plays and how much smarts it is over pure athleticism.”
Huberty said Bootland was a surprise.
“He’s a hockey kid,” the coach said. “He surprisingly adapted well to playing defense. The physical part, it surprised me how he’s embraced it.”
Although she is not on the field, Nunn keeps everyone on time and on task as the team manager.
Her job varies during the week.
“Sometimes I get equipment out for them,” she said. “I’m usually taking pictures because I run our social media pages.”
Huberty said she also keeps him on task.
“She is so amazing to have here,” he said. “I give her a practice schedule, and she lets me know when our sessions are done.
“We have a drone we sometimes run at practice, and she’ll run the drone for us and record practice.”
Ragan, who is Parchment’s leading goal-scorer in soccer, said “I never imagined myself on a football field in my life. I like it. I think it’s really fun.
“Football has definitely helped me with soccer. It’s made me more physical on the field for sure. I think that’s definitely a benefit.”
Huberty said Ragan, who booted a 25-yard field goal two weeks ago, “came out just to be a kicker. We got him out playing defense, and he liked it.”
Smith had some experience after playing football in middle school. But after watching the Panthers games, he realized he missed it.
“Wish I had played before,” he said. “I recommend playing football all four years. It’s a great experience.”
Kovl, who pulled in eight catches for 96 yards two weeks ago, said his best game was in a losing effort against Kalamazoo United.
“I had 126 yards, six receptions, two touchdowns,” he said. “It was a tough loss, but it was definitely one of my best games.”
McClanahan spends summers in Tennessee and made the choice to return to Parchment early this time so he could play football.
“I definitely like the energy we get at practices and during games with all my teammates,” he said. “A lot of my friends were coming out, so I decided I’d just hop on the train and come out.
“We’ve been close since sixth grade and anything one does, we all do together. We’re a really close friend group.”
Two more seniors, Slack and Shank, are juggling first-year football with other fall sports and sometimes miss practices.
“(Slack) has really started to emerge as a guy who can contribute to the team,” Huberty said. “He caught a touchdown pass against United and is starting to emerge as a guy who should start getting more playing time.”
Shank is the second-string kicker and also balancing a club commitment this fall.
“She runs cross country, her primary sport, and also does travel soccer in the fall,” Huberty said. “She comes when she can be here.”
As for the veterans on the team, “They have done a great job of embracing those first-year kids,” Huberty said.
“There’s no real wedge between kids who have played in the past and those who haven’t.”
Now that they've tasted success on the football field, the "Senior 9" all agreed on one regret: Waiting until their senior year to play football.
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Parchment’s Jacob Guzior (83) prepares to defend from his linebacker spot during a 21-17 Week 7 win over Allegan. (Middle) Front, from left: Mason Ragan, Blake Smith. Back, from left: McKenna Nunn, Will Kovl, Jacob Guzior, Breckyn Bootland and Ashtian McClanahan. (Below) The Panthers’ Will Kovl attempts to pull away from a Tigers defender. (Action photos by McKenna Nunn; group photo by Pam Shebest.)