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No matter how many times he does the math, the numbers don’t add up for Steve McKinney.
Unaka’s head football coach will start practice Monday with just 28 players. And McKinney said “outside influences” are hurting his program.
“I think we have a source outside the school, people influencing the kids not to play football,” said McKinney. “They have downgraded the football program even though we’ve made the playoffs the last couple of years (winning 11 games). We’ve had kids sign scholarships. Right now I’m real disappointed.”
McKinney said he believes the anti-football influences are not in the school system.
“All of the coaches at Unaka are very supportive of everybody,” said McKinney. “I support basketball, baseball, softball, golf, and those coaches support us, too.”
When school begins, he said a few more kids may come out. But for now, it’s make do with what you have.
“I told them the other day before we went out for conditioning, there won’t be a lot of people backing you up,” said McKinney. “That head-tapping stuff where you need a break won’t be there. I told them they better be in the best shape of their life.”
Basketball is the biggest problem for the Rangers’ football program, said McKinney.
“I think it can be attributed to playing in basketball tournaments all year round,” said McKinney. “People decide they want to be basketball stars.
“There’s a tournament every weekend at the Smoky Mountain complex. I know that’s a business, and I’m not knocking it. But at a school the size of Unaka, you’ve got to share athletes. Losing one kid won’t hurt a program like Dobyns-Bennett, Tennessee High or Science Hill. They will just get another kid to replace them.”
At Unaka, any replacements will likely come from the freshman class. And that can be a problem because of a lack of experience.
“When you have to play freshmen on the varsity level, you’re going to struggle,” said McKinney.
McKinney said he would love to have between 50 and 60 kids on the sidelines every Friday night. He had 44 players last season, but 11 of those were seniors.
“I think big numbers are good for the program,” said McKinney. “The ideal number is 10 players per grade for a Class A team. Hopefully we can get our numbers up around 35-40 kids.”
McKinney said he wanted the non-football-playing kids to know he wasn’t holding it against them.
“I’m not upset with the kids, that’s their choice,” said McKinney. “If I’ve got 28 who want to be out there, then that’s what we will play with. These 28 kids have been working hard. They are excited about participating and being successful.”