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RGR | 'Finish the job': Head coach Chris Jaax, Newton prepared for pivotal 2021 season
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Friday night, the Newton Railers football team will take the field for the town’s annual Fall Festival. It’s the mark of a new opportunity for a program that’s ready to take the next step.
Then, at 7 a.m. the next morning, the team will load up and head to McPherson for its jamboree scrimmage — one last dress rehearsal ahead of next week’s season opener against Andover Central.
“We’re using [these scrimmages] as a chance to see where guys fit in our scheme and see who improved over the summer,” Newton head coach Chris Jaax — who is entering his sixth season in the role — told me. “We want to see if there’s anything regarding execution that needs to be corrected.”
Last season’s 2-7 record can be misleading. In four of those games — Andover Central, Derby, Maize, and Hutchinson — the Railers lost by less than two touchdowns. Finishing games has been a focal point for Jaax’s squad this offseason.
“We’ve talked about it a lot. Last season, we felt like we deserved to be one of the top teams in [the AVCTL],” Jaax said. “But it’s something we’ve gotta do this year. We have to finish games.”
The team has made this a priority with a new motto: ‘Swing The Hammer.’
“It’s the idea that if you give full effort every single play, you can make good things happen. Those games were all decided by a single play near the end of regulation that had a make-or-break feel to them. And we just came up short,” Jaax recalled. “But if we have our focus on playing as hard as we can every play, we’ll take advantage of those opportunities at the end of games.”
Those opportunities will need to be seized by the Newton defense — a unit that struggled a year ago. On five separate occasions, the Railers allowed 40+ points to its opponent, including Hutchinson’s 54-point performance in late September.
However, a wealth of experience on the backend has a chance to not let history repeat itself. That includes SixStar Football Kansas 4-star defensive back Luke Hirsh.
“Our secondary will return six guys with starting experience,” Jaax noted. “Luke Hirsh, Ben Reyes, and Andrew Barron are just some of the guys that’ll be strong points for this team with their leadership on the field.”
“As a defense, we just want to be more aggressive. There were times last season we fell short in tackling and sticking with our responsibilities. We're just trying to make sure the kids play with confidence — without worry of making mistakes."
Offensively, Newton welcomes back three-year starter and Sports in Kansas preseason top 25 running back Kenyon Forest. Around him, the unit will be young. “We have a lot of underclassmen that'll be starting on offense,” Jaax said. “A senior returning starter we have is Jake Schmidt at receiver. He’ll make a lot of big plays for us this season — just as he did last season.”
A key contributor that doesn’t return from a year ago is quarterback Ben Schmidt. Finding his successor has been — just as with Railers fans around town — at the top of Jaax’s mind.
“At quarterback, we have three guys right now that we feel confident in,” Jaax stated. “We're letting them get opportunities and just seeing where things go.”
Sophomore Colby Gomez, junior Jayden Nash, and sophomore Dellen Claassen are the three passers currently in the mix. Jaax didn’t provide a timeline for a decision on a starter.
Regardless of who takes the first snap, the internal expectations for Newton in 2021 are as high as they’ve ever been. “In our kids' and coaches' minds, we believe we're a top team in the league,” Jaax said. “And we should be — based on how hard our kids have worked and the commitment they've made.”
“So that's our expectation: To finish the job and compete for a league title."
The Railers will travel to open their season on Sept. 3 against Andover Central at Jaguar Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Newton enters as 3-point favorites via CalPreps.
Brett is a freelance reporter covering the 2021 Newton (KS) High School football team and Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD (TX) 5A high school football. To stay updated, subscribe by completing the field above. Follow Brett on Twitter (@brettaesch) for up-to-the-minute coverage. Thanks for reading.