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Football: Low numbers leave Nederland clawing for improvement

MARK LEFFINGWELL
Nederland’s Holden Reecer, here in a file photo from last season, figures to be one of the keys to the Panthers trying to improve on last season’s 2-7 campaign.

In a small mountain town where skiing — and essentially anything outdoorsy — reigns supreme, football often is an afterthought.

That’s not to say there aren’t good football players in Nederland. One look at players such as Dillon Weaver and Holden Reecer will tell you there are. It is a constant battle, however, for the NHS Panthers to beef up their numbers with enough athletes to have significant depth.

“There are a bunch of people who should be playing who aren’t, and we just do our best to try and tell them it’s an actual fun sport,” said Weaver, a senior receiver, defensive back and kicker. “I think football is one of the greatest sports ever, and I just wish people would play because they would have just as much fun as I do.”

The Panthers are amidst a cycle in which enrollment is down to the 160-range whereas it occasionally crests around 250. And despite its semi-isolated location, Nederland is not immune to the transfer bug. Two freshman football players decided to commute to Fairview this season.

That’s no insignificant loss considering the Panthers will dress only 18 or 19 players for their opener Saturday against Cornerstone Christian Academy and will peak out around 25 on ensuing game days.

“Every year, it’s hard to get kids to come out for football,” Panthers coach Aaron Jones said. “We always end up wondering if we’re even going to have enough kids, and every year we do.”

Jones said he is encouraged that his team, 2-7 last season, doesn’t make excuses for the small numbers and doesn’t complain that it can’t compete against a full scout team.

Jones has been a difference-maker after taking over a moribund program that had gone 0-18 in the two seasons prior to his arrival. He has a 20-34 record at Nederland and has the Panthers competing despite the small numbers.

“We’ve won a third of our games pretty much, but at least we have a chance,” Jones said. “We’re not getting blown out anymore.”

Added Weaver: “I love coach Jones. He’s a great person to be around. He’ll discipline you, but you’ll get something out of it. I’m really glad he’s coaching the team up here.”

In addition to the small numbers and occasional transfers, Jones believes the recent scrutiny of concussions in football have made players and parents alike gun-shy toward the sport.

“Football is taking a beating right now in the media and everywhere else,” Jones said. “Parents are telling their kids that they don’t want them to play.”

Give the Panthers credit. Despite the disadvantages, they are pushing on with their heads up, chinstraps buckled. Other than their low participation numbers, they are not much unlike any other program around the state.

They have their own story lines, such as Reecer moving from guard to running back this season, and whether Weaver will pursue basketball in college or consider being a kicker at the next level.

Like anyone else, the Panthers’ upperclassmen are their leaders and the immediate focus is the next game and getting better overall.

“I like that they’re having fun,” Jones said. “Our sophomore class is our biggest class and we only have a handful of juniors and seniors, five or six of each. But they’ve been great leaders, positive and encouraging to the younger guys.”

Follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulWillis21