by Todd Habiger
LEAVENWORTH — Forget about Robert Downey Jr. flying around in a metal suit with an army of drones.
The real Iron Men resided in Leavenworth last year.
These guys weren’t superheroes. Instead, they were the football team of Immaculata High School.
Since the small school was only able to field an 11-man team — the exact number of players needed on the football field for every play — every Raider had to play every single down on both offense and defense.
Immaculata senior Cory Holcomb said last year was a difficult season, physically and mentally.
“You had to push through pain a little more,” he said. “In past seasons, if you were a little banged up, you could have someone go in for you for two or three plays. Last year, that wasn’t an option. Playing through injuries wasn’t always fun.”
Football can be a violent game and injuries happen. Twice last year, Immaculata was too banged up to field a team, resulting in forfeits. Other times, they had to make do being a man short.
“It made it that much more difficult to do your job,” said Holcomb. “[Our opponents] had substitutions. We didn’t. It was tiring knowing that you had to go out there every single play — sometimes with one less player.”
In the end, Immaculata lost every single game. But they also lost something more valuable — six seniors to graduation. For everyone at Immaculata, it was painfully obvious that they wouldn’t be able to field a team for the 2015 season.
Meanwhile, nearly 30 miles away, another school was also struggling with low numbers on its football team. Maranatha Christian Academy in Shawnee had just completed a 1-8 season in 2014 — its sole victory a 51-14 win over Immaculata.
Numbers for the 2015 season didn’t look promising. The possibility loomed that Maranatha wouldn’t be able to field a team. An idea formed. Instead of two schools forgoing football for the season, why not combine teams and give the boys who wanted, a chance to play?
“It was a blessing for both schools,” said Drew Molitoris, the new athletic director at Immaculata. “Neither school wanted to temporarily suspend their program. This was a solution to help both parties. I think both of us would agree that the plan is to grow the middle school leagues and boost enrollment so both teams could operate independently in the future.”
For Holcomb, the sole junior on last year’s Immaculata team, the combined team was a godsend. He wanted to play football his senior year and now the opportunity had presented itself.
Right away, Holcomb felt welcomed by the Maranatha team. He received a text out of the blue from a Maranatha player asking him to join the team. He joined Maranatha for a summer camp and fit right in.
He was going to play football his senior year — and he wouldn’t be alone. Four other Immaculata students would be joining him — including an old friend.
For Justin Varney, the 2014 football season was a difficult one — because he decided not to play.
“I didn’t think it was going to be enjoyable with so few people out [for the team],” he said. “I didn’t think it was something I wanted to put all my time into.”
As his classmates struggled through a difficult season, Varney struggled with his decision. Having played football every year since the first grade, Varney now found himself living without the sport. Watching football — any football — was difficult.
“Last year was a hard decision,” he said. “I still feel it was the right one.”
This year, Varney again debated whether or not he wanted to go out for football, this time with another school in another town.
“This year, I didn’t make my decision until about an hour before our first practice when [Cory Holcomb] called my house and asked me if I was going to play,” he said. “I decided to play and give it a shot my senior year. I definitely don’t regret it. I enjoy the practices this year more than I ever have in football.”
Immaculata no more
The uniforms say Maranatha. The schedule says Maranatha. It’s with a tinge of sadness that Holcomb and Varney leave behind the Immaculata name.
“Ever since first grade,” said Varney, “I went to Imac games and wanted to be them. Now I can’t really do that because we’re playing for Maranatha.
“But it is a new opportunity where maybe something better will come of it. You never know.”
For Holcomb, the feeling is the same.
“There is some sadness,” he said. “I wish I could have played four years with my school. But still, it’s an opportunity to play.”
Though Maranatha High School’s record stands at 0-6, Maranatha head coach Bryan Burdette considers this season a success.
“Success is measured in so many ways,” he said. “We want to gauge whether we are successful by this: Are we doing our dead level best to use the gifts that God has given us to glorify him? If so, we have been successful. I believe, for the most part, we have done that.”
Burdette has stressed hard work and learning from mistakes to his team.
“Football has been a positive experience for 17 boys [this year],” he said. “I want to thank both school communities for their efforts to allow our two schools to come together to enable God to do his work. I don’t think he is finished just yet.”
One night only — the Raiders return
SHAWNEE — There was a secret brewing within the Maranatha Christian Academy football team.
Since the beginning of the Maranatha-Immaculata co-op, head football coach Bryan Burdette has embraced the situation and looked for ways to include the traditions of both schools.
Since Maranatha’s home field doesn’t have lights, three games were held at Abeles Field, Immaculata’s home football field — including homecoming on Oct. 9.
But Burdette had an even better idea, which the team executed on the night of homecoming. After warming up in their Maranatha uniforms, the team went into the locker room and switched into Immaculata uniforms, much to the delight of the home crowd.
Immaculata senior Justin Varney, though injured and not able to play, appreciated the uniforms.
“To have my teammates be able to walk out in those uniforms was pretty cool,” Varney said. “And I think the fans appreciated it.”
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