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Colliding with reality: Mitchell attempts to breed physicality despite ever-changing rules

Mitchell's Max Schoenfelder (26) wraps up Huron quarterback Jett McGirr for a loss in the backfield during a game last Friday at Joe Quintal Field. (Matt Gade / Republic)

There is no secret that rule changes in football have altered how the sport is played and coached during the past few years. Increased concussion awareness has led to limitations on contact during practices and protecting players from certain types of hits during games.

One of the foundations of the Mitchell High School football program, however, is physicality. Kernel head coach Kent VanOverschelde implores his team to impose their will on opponents each Friday night.

While VanOverschelde still wants to breed mental and physical toughness and he believes that it is essential to winning games, his program must do it in a different manner now.

"We rely so much on that toughness in guys that comes from being competitive in multiple sports," he said. "We've had to make adaptations and set an expectation just with what we do in practice. You have to abide by certain levels of contact (rules), but you also have to stay healthy from one week to the next."

South Dakota High School Activities Association rules only allot 30 minutes of thud (contact above the waist without tackling to the ground) or live action hitting time during practice and teams cannot do so on two consecutive days.

With only four days of practices before a Friday game, Mitchell uses Wednesday as its only hitting day during the week. While the rule is designed to limit potential injuries and avoid coaches from allowing too much contact, it also limits the amount of time to teach and practice proper tackling techniques.

"You hate to think that you have to turn the switch on Friday night, but you hope that the intensity in which you do your drills and the intensity you do things on a daily basis prepares us for the right technique and the ability to make plays on Friday night," VanOverschelde said.

With the amplified discussion of football-related injuries, the days of barbaric, no-holds-barred practices are in the past. Coaches can certainly encourage players not fear or shy away from contact, but there is now a line drawn in the sand.

VanOverschelde has had to modify his message in recent years to ensure that players and parents understand his version of physicality does not mean dirty play or violence, but rather a clean-hitting style of play that is intended to overwhelm opponents as the game progresses.

"We understand that we play smart so you don't get injured," MHS defensive tackle Levi Winne said. "Just keep your head up. We get it."

While the message of playing a physical manner is misconstrued or more difficult to implement now, the Mitchell program still believes wholeheartedly that the more physical team is going to come out on top at the end of the night.

According to VanOverschelde, the more physical team is able to move the line of scrimmage in their desired direction more frequently, break more tackles, make more tackles and create a psychological advantage. The message doesn't ring hollow to players, either, claiming to have seen it come to fruition.

"Anybody who's physical out there is probably going to be successful," MHS linebacker Max Schoenfelder said. "The last game against Huron, they didn't have a lot of flashy talent or a lot of fast players, but they were really physical up front. ... We had to match their physicality in order to win."

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