Junior Tackle: Teams gearing up for opening week against Byron

Fifth-grader Connor Lewis hands off the football during Junior Tackle practice on Wednesday. (Photo by Russell Hodges)

First games scheduled for Aug. 10

ROCHELLE — The Rochelle Junior Tackle teams are less than two weeks away from kicking off the 2019 season against Byron on Saturday, Aug. 10. Roughly 130 players between fifth and eighth grade are set to take the field this year, and the teams are looking forward to getting the new season underway.

While the eighth-graders have the smallest roster (23 players) among the four Rochelle Junior Tackle teams, that doesn’t mean there’s any heart to be spared. Led by head coach Ben Manning, who returns after stepping down from the lead position in 2018, the Junior Hubs are aiming to build on their 4-4 record as seventh-graders last season.

“I’m excited to be back,” Manning said. “I love being around the kids and I love helping them learn about the game. We definitely have some size up front and we have some good skill players as well. Right now, it’s about getting everybody going in the same direction. We’re building a family atmosphere and the kids are learning how to play hard.”

The 2018 season was special for the seventh-graders, who went 9-0 and won the Big 14 Conference Championship as sixth-graders. The players also journeyed to Canton, Ohio and participated in the 4th Annual Hall of Fame Youth Gridiron Classic, where they went 1-1 and placed second in the sixth-grade division. Chris Lewis steps into the head coaching role for the seventh-graders this season.

“We’re working on our fundamentals and getting better each day,” Lewis said. “We’re trying to get every kid involved and we want to help everybody get better. The really cool thing I’ve seen is that the kids have grown together as a group and they genuinely like each other. They like to compete and they like to win.”

Ben Mershon returns as head coach of the sixth-graders, and Mershon will have the opportunity to teach his son Logan, who ascends to the sixth-grade level this year. The sixth-graders went 4-3-1 as fifth-graders during the 2018 season, and while the players have started slowly in practice, they’ll be looking to speed up the offense.

“We’re definitely be able to compete this year,” Mershon said. “We’re doing a lot of things differently this year. We’re going to try and run the quarterbacks more, and we’re going to try and throw the ball more. I love coaching, and we enjoy being out here with the kids. We all love football, and every year is different.”

The fifth-graders will get their first-ever tackle football snaps this year after moving up from the flag football program as fourth-graders. Joe Tourdot remains head coach of the fifth-graders, and while there isn’t much known about how tough the conference will be at the fifth-grade level this year, the Junior Hubs boast a large roster of nearly 40 players.

“I’ve watched a lot of these kids through flag football and it’s fun to teach these kids the fundamentals of football,” Tourdot said. “The numbers are huge which makes things tough for playing time, but we have a really athletic group and we have some kids who can run and who aren’t afraid to hit. It should be a good group.”

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