KEARNEY — The Kearney High football cupboard got cleaned out after last year, but it’s not bare.
Coach Brandon Cool welcomed 90 squad members, give or take a couple, for the first practices Monday, stepping on Foster Field at 7 a.m., then putting in a full practice in the evening at Kearney High.
Cool said simply, Day 1 was "awesome."
Entering his 19th year as the Kearney High head coach, Cool anticipated a hard-working, good-attitude group after an off-season of weight-lifting, conditioning and seven-on-seven workouts that were "as good as it’s ever been." The team increased its speed and agility and came in ready to give the effort that it will need to be successful.
And it will take a lot of hard work.
Kearney graduated a dozen offensive and defensive linemen from last year’s 5-5 team.
"Four out of five offensive spots are up in the air as well as two inside linebacker spots," Cool said. "There’s going to be some rotation in some other spots but those are the two key spots we have to deal with going into the season.
"We feel we have a nucleus of kids in all those other spots."
That nucleus comes from the players’ familiarity with the program as they rise from tier to tier, starting in middle school, then freshman ball and sophomore ball.
"When they become sophomores is when they really get introduced to varsity football. We teach them the same thing offensively and defensively but we also bring those sophomores down later in the season and they go against the varsity. That’s where they really improve," Cool said.
As juniors and seniors, they know what to expect and the coaching staff has a pretty good idea of what to expect from them.
That’s why the biggest question mark — replacing quarterback Brayden Miller, who is now with the Cornhuskers — isn’t an overwhelming concern. Senior Colin Murray is expected to step right in with junior Preston Pearson his backup.
"Colin didn’t get a lot of opportunities to play at the varsity level last year so he’s an inexperienced quarterback who’s obviously a concern going in. But once those guys get two or three weeks of reps underneath them, he’ll be just fine as the season goes along," Cool said.
While Murray builds his reps, the Bearcats will rely on two of the top skill-position players in the state.
Wide receiver Seth Stroh caught 30 passes for 410 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Running back Miko Maessner, who was banged up from the start last year, averaged 6.7 yards per carry. In addition, Maessner signed with Princeton after winning the Class A 100- and 200-meter dashes at the state track meet.
"I really liked working with him this spring," said Cool, who is the sprint coach in track. "I liked his attitude and obviously you don’t become a state champion if you don’t put some time and effort into it. This summer he’s done a good job of preparing himself for this opportunity. ... We’re looking for him to have a great, great football season."
The Bearcats also return Jaxon Worley at tight end and defensive end, Braden Rich at defensive back and Alex Kemp at defensive end.
Seven other lettermen, all seniors, fill out the list of veterans.