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RGR | Newton, Jaax focused on growth ahead of 2021 campaign's final stretch
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At the halfway point of Newton’s 2021 football season, one thing has become apparent: The Railers are searching for an identity.
With an overall record of 0-4 and three of those losses coming in league play, they currently stand tied with Haysville Campus for last place in the Ark Valley-Chisholm Trail League Division 1 standings.
And while there’s a myriad of reasons that can be pinned to the lack of success — such as starting ten underclassmen on offense while playing arguably the toughest schedule in the state of Kansas — effort isn’t one of them. "The biggest thing is the kids are playing hard,” head coach Chris Jaax said.
“It's just a matter of us correcting our mistakes and executing consistently. Offensively, just finishing drives. Defensively, not giving up big plays.”
It’s the most concise way to summarize the course of this season. Newton is yet to find consistency on both sides of the ball, and in doing so has failed to keep a game within two possessions since its season-opening four-point loss to 4A’s top-ranked Andover Central.
Despite this, Jaax understands that judging his team by wins and losses at this stage does its confidence no favors. Instead, he focuses on its growth: “There's a lot of good things the kids have done,” he said. “It'll come down to us correcting our mistakes as a team."
One of those kids serves as a vital piece of the aforementioned ten underclassman starters on the Railers’ offense. "He's really come a long way,” Jaax said of sophomore quarterback Colby Gomez — who was named the team’s starting passer after winning a three-man race for the job in fall camp.
Through four games, Gomez has amassed 596 yards passing with a 53% completion rate — but the box score isn’t what instills confidence in his teammates and coaching staff.
“I think the biggest thing for him is the way he's handled stepping on the field against some of the best teams in the state,” the head coach said. “Andover Central is the number two team in 4A, Derby’s number one in 6A … Seeing how he's responded to those situations is impressive.”
While Gomez has impressed, he hasn’t gone unscathed. “There's been some learning experiences for him in certain areas,” Jaax noted — such as his three interceptions against Maize. “He did a good job of protecting the ball in a lot of different scenarios, and it's something he can continue to get better at.”
But each learning experience is to his benefit. “He's shown a lot of growth. It'll come down to getting more reps and ensuring that he — and the rest of the offense — gets more experience,” Jaax said.
Next to Gomez in the backfield is sophomore running back James Hulse, who made his first varsity start in last week’s loss to Hutch after senior Kenyon Forest underwent season-ending surgery. "James is a young kid and we're just trying to work him in,” Jaax said. “He's got a lot of good instincts and we're working to put him in situations to be successful.”
Both Gomez and Hulse’s success will hinge on one group: The guys up front. “Our offensive line needs to get healthy,” Jaax said. “I think we've had four different combinations this season. Getting stability there will be key.”
Conversely, Newton’s defensive line had one of its toughest tasks of the season a week ago against Hutch’s flexbone offense. And for a majority of the game, it exceeded expectations.
"They played hard, and one of the things we've talked to them about is playing aggressive,” Jaax said. “They know their responsibilities, they know their keys, they're watching film and making sure they know what they need to do.”
“They're going to trust each other and play together as a group."
Now, with a trip to Maize and a showdown with current league-leader Maize South on deck, Jaax is ensuring that his players focus on themselves in a positive light, rather than their opponent.
"The biggest thing will be understanding that even though we haven't played exactly how we wanted to, there's still things we’re doing well and that we need to keep working hard and not get discouraged,” Jaax noted.
“We've just got to keep creating opportunities for ourselves. We’ve got to trust each other. And we’ve got to enjoy the experience together."
Game details: Newton at Maize South
Location: Maize South Sports Complex (Wichita)
Kickoff: 7:00 p.m.
Weather: 68 degrees. Possible thunderstorms. 72% chance of rain.
Spread (via CalPreps): Maize South (-35)
2020 result: Maize South won, 30-10
CalPreps Projection: Maize South 42, Newton 7
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.