With a Coed Roster, Cougar Junior-High Football Is Proving Its Mettle
At most schools, coed sports would be a novelty. In Dell City, not so much. We've had coed basketball teams win district championships. And the tradition continues this year, in junior-high six-man football. Kortney Burford, grade eight, and Nicole Martos, grade six, are integral to the nine-player team.
Both players relish the contact that's at the heart of the game.
“It's fun to hit people,” Martos said.
“I like everything about it,” she said, “but defense is what I like best – tackling people.”
For Martos, the seed was planted in fourth grade, when her teacher, Benancio Benavidez, taught her the basics of the game.
“I had nothing to do at recess,” she said, “and Mr. B. told me I should play football. I started liking it – and I figured out I wanted to play.”
Burford said she's enjoyed watching Cougar football games for years – and that Dell City Athletics Director and Coach Joe Czubinski made the game interesting to her, and inspired her to play. Sibling rivalry also played a role. Kortney's sister Kaysie, now a sophomore, played football in eighth grade.
“And she always claims that she's better,” Burford said. “So I wanted to prove that she's not. I need to be better – and I am.”
For both players, being on the field is a thrilling experience. The Cougars struggled at the beginning of their first game, against Fort Hancock. Then they realized that, while their opponents might be bigger, they could still be tackled. The team mounted an impressive rally in the second half.
“Actually getting on the field was amazing,” Burford said. “It was the empowerment.”
For Martos, her trepidation faded quickly.
“I was nervous on the bus ride,” she said. “But when we got there I realized it actually wasn't that bad – and once I got out on the field, it was fun.”
In our part of the world, whether it's on the football field or in the branding pen, any quibbling about gender takes a backseat to the question of whether you can get the job done. In a small community, every hand is needed. The Cougars didn't have sufficient players to field a junior-high team for the last two years. Martos' and Burford's teammates are enthusiastic, and grateful, that their female classmates have thrown their weight into the game.
“It's more about the team aspect than the individual,” eighth-grade player Jeremiah Rauch said. “For the two years we didn't have teams, Kortney always said, 'I'm going play football, and I'm going to be really good at it.' And she was right.”
Martos' mother, Adriana Sanchez, is a Dell City teacher. She said that, “at first she was kind of nervous how the boys would accept” her daughter. Sanchez can glimpse the practice field from her classroom, and she said she looked out a few times during the first practices.
“During the first week of conditioning, I peeked back there,” Sanchez said, “and then I would see she was keeping up, and I thought, 'Okay! You know what – she'll be okay.'
“When they started hitting, I peeked on the first day,” Sanchez said, “and I saw somebody, you know, knock her to the ground. But then I saw her pop back up, ready to go. So I thought, 'She can do it.' She's been surprising me every time. In the first game, they did so awesome, and she just loves being out there.”
Sanchez said football is giving her daughter an opportunity to learn lessons larger than tackling and blocking.
“I'm more excited about the other things she's gaining,” Sanchez said, “like teamwork – those kinds of things that you don't learn in a classroom, but you can learn on a sports field with your teammates. I'm excited for her.”
Coach Czubinski agreed.
“It's really about responsibility,” he said. “With only nine players, you're accountable.”
Dell City doesn't have a high-school team this year, and that's allowing Coach Czubinski, and his fellow coaches, Trever Czubinski and Chuck Wilson, to devote their attention and energy to the junior-high squad. Only two of the players have competed in football before. And Coach Ski said he doesn't go easy on the team.
“I push them hard,” he said. “We've only got nine kids, so I need all of them on the field. That means they have to be in tip-top shape.”
Czubinski said that both Burford and Martos “are playing really well,” and that there's “nothing different about working with girls.” Martos, he said, has “sheer athletic ability.” Burford starts on defense. She's taller than most of her teammates, and many of the team's opponents, and Czubinski said “she's just starting to realize how sometimes she can impose her will.”
Czubinski said he was “shocked” by the team's strong performance in their first game. But his son pointed out that, given how hard the team has worked, there was no reason to be shocked. Czubinski “runs the dog out of them” during morning athletics, and the team has a second practice after school.
Czubinski said he's impressed by how the young players “show up every day” ready to practice.
“We have nine kids,” he said, “but we've got kids that really want to play. I'm happy for those who really want to play that there's something for them to go out and do.”