MIDDLE AMERICA, SHELBY — Take a drive down Highway 92 or up Walnut Street in Shelby and you know quick it’s a real Nebraska kind of town.
Hard working. A spot on the map where your neighbor looks out for you. Where, in the fall, time stops for a few hours on Friday night for a football game.
The farmers get together for coffee and Cubby’s Convenience Store each morning and if you had to run in and deposit a check at Pinnacle Bank, you could leave your car running, or, at worst, leave the keys in the console.
It’s rare, when you see the population sign say 734, that this “little” town still puts 11 boys on the football field in Class C-2.
“I always thought that football was for 11 guys on the field,” head ball coach Kevin Kopecky jokes.
Yeah, there is pride in Shelby (and neighboring Rising City, with who they have a consolidated district) and it stands on the north end of Walnut St. on the edge of town.
A new facility serves as a wonderful school, but also the town library and state-of-the-art community fitness center. The new football field — three seasons in — is complete with a new track and field turf.
“The community is a great place,” the coach said. “Our facilities are second to none. People here really care about the education that our kids get. It’s a great place to be.”
When Kevin Kopecky arrived a few years ago, it wasn’t pretty.
He had coached in David City and grew up in Spencer, so he knew what football in Nebraska was about after spending 15 years at St. Thomas Aquinas in Kansas City.
When he arrived in 2015, he had an eager group of freshmen ready to see if they might be able to turn around a winless 2014 season.
“We had 52 kids at our first session of weights,” he said.
One of them was Austin Coffin.
“When we were in junior high and saw the team go 0-9 we thought we’d have a chance to turn it around,” Coffin says. “We have just always worked well together.”
What the Huskies didn’t get, in learning to win after a 3-6 campaign in 2015, was any favors in scheduling from the Nebraska School Activities Association. They went just 7-11 over the next two years in a 2016-17 scheduling cycle that saw them lose 10 of their 11 games to teams that made the playoffs. Last year they lost to eventual finalist Centennial, 7-0 in the regular season.
But, 2018 brought a renewed sense of purpose and belief. The program had not been to the playoffs since 2010. Yet, the seniors stood on Walnut St. as it heads out of town by their stadium for their season poster that’s scattered across town with three words: Road to State.
“Those kids have bought in since the day we have had them in our program,” Kopecky said. He speaks of them as if they are his sons, and they probably are. “These guys have done just about anything we have asked them to do.”
Kopecky and his crew knew it was different right off the bat on August 29th when they went to preseason, fourth-ranked Battle Creek and built a 13-0 halftime lead before winning 29-14.
Quarterback Mason Schleis threw for 97 yards and ran for 109 more in the victory and the Huskies parlayed it into a 4-0 start.
“Battle Creek,” lineman and linebacker Jacob Willis says, “we knew if we could beat Battle Creek we’d be right there with the rest of the class.”
After a loss to David City, the Huskies bounced back with a win over playoff bound North Bend Central and finished the regular season 6-3. Their other two losses were to top-ranked Centennial and perennial power David City Aquinas.
The Huskies, and Kevin Kopecky’s band of determined seniors, had earned “The Walk” reserved for state qualifying teams at the school.
Few gave Shelby-Rising City a chance last Friday against unbeaten and fourth-ranked Oakland-Craig. Those who did were moms and dads and the kids and coaches on the bus.
Yet, there the Huskies were. Tied at the half, 14-14.
“We just played toe-to-toe with them the whole way,” Kopecky said.
“I think after we got our first touchdown we just played with a lot of confidence the rest of the game,” Coffin said.
They took a 22-14 lead to the fourth quarter. With 3:20 left, Knight quarterback Jared Mulder tied the game on a 1-yard run and then threw a tying conversion pass.
Each team got another chance to win and each defense held. Facing fourth and long with eight seconds left and deep in their own territory, Kopecky used a timeout and SRC discussed their options.
“We kind of teach the kids that a play in football lasts about five seconds,” the coach said. “We didn’t think we could stand back there and run around; especially 80 yards from our end zone.”
Punt the ball. Win the game in overtime.
Willis and Coffin have executed that snap hundreds – if not thousands – of times together in practice and games. But, in a big spot in a playoff game, Willis’ final snap was just a little high for Coffin.
Coffin tried to pick it up, but never had it cleanly. He was hit in the end zone and the ball came loose. The Knights’ Mason Brands recovered for a touchdown. Oakland-Craig 28, Shelby-Rising City 22.
The lessons that had molded Coffin and Willis for four seasons, were about to take hold.
“I knew, right in that moment, that I felt like I had ruined our season,” Willis said. “I felt so bad. But, not 30 seconds after that my teammates and coaches were coming up to me and they told me they loved me.
“Nobody was mad at me. They told me that it’s just a game.”
You can learn these lessons of football just about anywhere on a Friday night in November throughout our state. Sometimes they can be cruel, but those are generally the ones that mean the most down the road.
Jacob and Austin and their buddies and their coach are going to go to a football game — maybe in David City or Wahoo or York — on Friday night and watch.
“As much as it will suck to be watching in the stands,” Willis said with a wink and a smile.
But football, above all else, is about friendship.
“I told all those guys after the game in our huddle that I loved them,” Coffin said. “And that football made us men.”
Their coach knew what this season was about, too.
“I don’t think in 30 years of coaching I had a better locker room than this one,” he said. “They were just a joy to coach. We spent a lot of time together. It was an awesome bunch of kids.”
Jacob Willis and Austin Coffin will go off to college next fall — in Lincoln and Norfolk — to major in construction management. It says here their first building project, to get SRC to the football playoffs, was completed with a resounding success.
It’s just that ending was a little different than they had hoped for. But the lessons from Friday night won’t ever fade — they’ll be champions and friends with their teammates for the rest of their lives.
Their coach knows that all too well.
“I’ll remember this team the rest of my life.”
Win or lose, everybody in Shelby and Rising City will too.