Newton County and Union don’t have to look far in order to find a quality opponent.
The Cougars and Yellowjackets both sit at 2-0 entering Week 3, and Friday’s game at Newton County is a battle for county bragging rights, as the two schools sit just 11 miles apart. The storylines are different, though, as Newton County is a team trying to continue success after a strong postseason run in 2019 while Union is a team showing early success under first-year head coach Jordan Wren.
The Cougars opened the season with a 32-13 win against Morton and beat Southeast Lauderdale 39-6 last week. Head coach Bobby Bass said it’s been a challenge trying to maintain a routine during the COVID-19 pandemic, but so far the players have responded well.
“We’re just trying to get better,” Bass said. “With all of the 2020 stuff going on, we’re trying to keep it all together. Day to day, everything is different, and we’re trying to keep the kids focused on the job at hand. We’re mainly focusing on ourselves and trying to get better every week, and that’s been the biggest challenge. Sometimes kids aren’t here, and it’s not their fault when they get quarantined or whatever.”
Since athletes and coaches are creatures of habit, Bass said school life during a pandemic has made for some interesting adjustments.
“That’s the thing: It’s not only the kids but the coaches, too, we’re routine people,” Bass said. “We laughed and joked when school started about getting in a routine, and it seems like every day something comes up. There isn’t going to be a normal routine to every day, but as a team we’ve kind of gotten into a routine. It’s just about being flexible.”
Last fall, the Cougars made it three rounds deep in the MHSAA Class 4A playoffs, and Bass said that taste of success has hopefully given the players some confidence.
“Before COVID-19 happened we were having a great spring,” Bass said. “We had gotten so much bigger and stronger, and then school was out. Not being able to see our kids, it set us back a little bit, but we had a good summer for the most part. The late start to the season helped us a good bit by letting us get back some of what we had lost.”
Now, the Cougars face a local team coming off two blowout wins, and Bass said he expects Friday’s home game to live up to the hype.
“I think it’ll be a good game,” Bass said. “They have some really good athletes, and they’re well-coached, so I think it’ll be a well-contested game.”
Wren took over Union’s football program following the retirement of longtime coach Brad Breland, and the Yellowjackets have won convincingly in their first two games under Wren: 51-8 against McAdams in Week 1 and 48-0 against Eupora in Week 2.
“I think the biggest thing is we’re playing with a lot of effort right now,” Wren said. “Our defensive line is doing a good job of coming off the football and taking control, and our offensive line is doing the same. I think that’s the whole reason we’re clicking, because we’re winning the battles up front.”
COVID-19 protocols like splitting the varsity players between two locker rooms and making sure they don’t share water bottles has been a challenge, but Wren said starting summer workouts at their usual start date in June helped the players and coaches get used to the new normal.
“The biggest issue has been washing every piece of clothing every day, but these kids don’t see it as any different,” Wren said. “They just want discipline and structure. Most of the time they do their best to follow what you want them to do.”
Sometimes it takes at least a year for players and new coaches to adjust to one another. Wren said making an effort to remain in contact during the coronavirus shutdowns in the spring helped ease that transition.
“When we were off for those three months, I spent a lot of time going to visit the kids at their houses,” Wren said. “I wouldn’t go in, but they would come outside. The relationships were already built before we shut down, and I tried to keep them strong. It’s a normal thing: Kids don’t care what you know until you show that you care, and as coaches if you want your kids to play hard for you, you have to show them you’re there for them no matter the situation.”
In Newton County, Wren said his Yellowjackets will face “by far the best team we’ve played so far.”
“They’re big up front and fast up front,” Wren said. “I think this is going to be a really tough test for us on Friday. I told the kids all week we have to take it one play at a time. Whether something good or bad happens, each play has a life of its own, and you have to put your energy, focus and technique into the next play. If we do that, hopefully we’ll like the ending of the game.”
Kickoff is at 7 p.m. Friday at Newton County.