The football field shimmered with more blue than ever as Rollins College took the field for practice on Monday night. In less than two weeks they’ll hit the gridiron for their second season since a resurrection after 62 years of dormancy. When that moment comes on Sept. 29, they’re hoping to be bigger and better than ever.
They’re getting there. His eyes panning a dimly lit damp field, Coach Ezra Simmons sees some familiar faces and a lot of new ones under shiny white helmets. The head count is in the high twenties on Monday night, though the full roster comes out closer to 40, he said. Meager as it is, that’s still substantially better than last year.
Returning lineman Chris Alvarez said he’s excited already.
“We were really scared that we wouldn’t have anybody this year,” Alvarez said. “When I saw all the people on the field I was like ‘Yes!’ because now I’ll have backup.”
When the Tars pulled off their first win against Clemson last season, only 18 men were left standing by game’s end. One of them played with a hand that had been crushed because he had no backup.
Two thousand fans were watching as that scoreboard showed 30-16, a gritty but happy end to the second of two exhibition games that would make their 2011 season.
“Last year people were interested in the novelty of it,” Simmons said. “They wanted to see if this is going to succeed or fail. Now they know we’re serious.”
A collision at midfield Monday sent two blue jerseys hurtling sideways toward the ground as Rollins practiced tackling drills to get ready to face Kennesaw State, t-minus 12 days and counting. On Hungerford Field in Eatonville, the Tars are practicing late to stay out of the summer simmer, readying for the long ride to where the swamps meet the cooler Appalachian foothills in north Georgia.
The Tars have never played the Owls before. When Kennesaw State was founded, Rollins’ football team had been shuttered for more than 13 years. More pointedly, Kennesaw State has never had a football team until this year. But they’re ambitiously growing the program, with the Marietta Daily Journal reporting that the school has aspirations to play in NCAA-level football by 2014.
With no experience against the Owls to go off of, the Tars are relying on practicing harder and gaining as much experience as possible before the scoreboard lights up at the end of the month.
“Our roster size has increased quite a bit,” Hoblick said. “We’ve had a lot more commitment at practice weekly. There’s a lot more expected from the players this year and more responsibility. With seven games instead of just two, there’s a lot more demanded from them physically.”
They’ll have a bit more star power this time around, with what Simmons said is the team’s first recruiting class, of two players. Joey Vinck, from Glendale Rancho Solano Prep in Arizona was a three-sport varsity athlete and helped launch a team that had 15 players the first year. Trey Vaillant is also a multi-sport athlete.
“I’m pretty excited for our first game,” Vinck said. “One thing I’ve noticed is the enthusiasm and intensity that we have.”
2012 Rollins College Football schedule
Sept. 29: Kennesaw State in Kennesaw, Ga.
Oct. 14: Longwood University in Winter Park
Oct. 20: Clemson University Football Club in Winter Park
Oct. 28: University of South Carolina Club in Columbia, S.C.
Nov. 3: University of North Carolina Club in Winter Park (Homecoming weekend)
Nov. 10: Virginia Commonwealth in Winter Park
Dec. 1: TBD (Winter Park Bowl) in Winter Park
But some on the team don’t have as much experience with full football seasons heading into their first year at Rollins. That means longer practices and more conditioning drills to try to get them more into shape than their first opponent. And despite their lack of experience, Hoblick said that Kennesaw State could be their biggest opponent this year.
With a roster of 60 players, they’re maxed out for a club-level sport.
“Even though they’re new, they’ve got it together pretty well,” Hoblick said. “The teams where they’re the only one at their school, those are the ones that will give us the biggest competition.”
Those teams include Virginia Commonwealth (Nov. 10) and Longwood University, which will arrive on Oct. 14 for the Tars’ first home game of the season. But the Tars will be playing some club-level teams from much bigger namesakes including Clemson, South Carolina and North Carolina.
And over the course of seven games they’re hoping to build skills on the field, but also a buzz and a fan base to try to trump their big opening game last year, which Hoblick said had 3,000 fans in attendance.
“We’re pretty confident that we’ll be able to win quite a few football programs this season,” Hoblick said. “The winning is what’s going to bring people out to the games, then we’ll see how far we can go from there.”