BURNETTOWN - The new, small, tight-knit football team from Midland Valley Preparatory School lacks experience going into its first season on the field.
But that doesn't matter to their coach, who sees their will to win.
"I've always been a coach of desire. You can build on an athlete who has desire," said Andy Winkler, head coach of the Midland Valley Preparatory team. "Desire will see you through the season even if you don't win any games."
While most schools will have 30 or more pupils on their football teams, Midland Valley Prep considers itself lucky to field about 20 boys and one girl as it seeks gridiron glory against other middle schools in Aiken County .
When the team hits the field Sept. 9, it will become one of the first in the state from a chartered middle school to compete with other schools in its district.
Battling against larger squads with more conventional nicknames, the Midland Valley Prep team will campaign as the Brumbies, the fierce, wild horses of Australia. If this were Denver, they might be called the Broncos.
Mr. Winkler helped choose the team name and picked out an emblem of a snorting horse to be emblazoned on players' jerseys. He said the football team is a bright spot in a school year shadowed by allegations of fraud directed by six former teachers toward the school's principal, Lilian Thomas.
While the allegations are being investigated by the school's five-person board, Mrs. Thomas has been on the field doing crab crawls and tin-man exercises with the team during practices in the sweltering summer heat.
"There's nothing more motivating than trying to keep up with a bunch of seventh- and eighth-graders," Mrs. Thomas said. "The team really makes them feel like they are part of something at this school."
The Brumbies will play three district middle schools that have more experienced teams plucked from larger pupil populations. To face these veteran squads, Midland Valley Prep will rely on a mix of players who probably wouldn't make the cut at larger schools.
"When you've got a boy over 300 pounds and has never run a lap in his life, just the fact that he tries is amazing," Mr. Winkler said. "If they were anywhere else they wouldn't get to play."
Everywhere the players go - practice, class or home - they are expected to carry their football helmets with them. It serves as a reminder that they carry a larger life responsibility - to the Brumbies.
When a player forgets to bring shoulder pads, the entire team pays with extra push-ups to remind players about the "importance of handling your responsibility," Mr. Winkler said.
Hannah Brunson was one of six girls to sign up for the team but the only one to show up for practices. Mr. Winkler said Hannah has proved that she has a place on the field and can take hits and tackle boys twice her weight.
Hannah said some of her female friends laughed at her the first time they saw her in football pads. "But a lot of them still want to sign up but their moms won't let them."
Although the team still has several weeks before they face A. L. Corbett Middle School on Sept. 9, Mr. Winkler said the players have character and are equally quick to point out one another's mistakes and offer encouragement.
"I admire their blind faith because some of them have never played before," Mr. Winkler said.
"The fact that they are getting hyped up to play against their friends shows that they are willing to do what it takes to win."
Reach Karen Ethridge at (803) 648-1395, ext. 109, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Midland Valley Preparatory's football team plays its first game at 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 9, at A. L. Corbett Middle School.
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