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Kennedy’s junior varsity shows no signs of quitting

on October 29, 2009

The team knelt  and huddled tight at midfield after a 21-8 loss. The stands, sparsely populated during the game, were already empty. But coach Mack Carminer wasn’t too concerned with the scoreboard. His mind was on keeping his team together.

“My last comment should have been my first,” Carminer said, his eyes scanning the half-circle of sweaty faces. “You must, you must be at practice every day.”

Carminer’s words lingered for a few moments. The kids, some of whom wore borrowed, mismatched jerseys, stared silently.

Since John F. Kennedy high school’s varsity team quit its season due to a lack of players on Oct. 16, the school’s junior varsity team has been the school’s only active squad. The JV team dropped to 0-4 on the season after losing to Piedmont High School on Oct. 22. A late touchdown pass to sophomore Bobby Henderson and a two-point conversion made the final score 21-8.

But Kennedy’s players and coaching staff were concerned with more than the score. With their ranks swelled to nearly 30 players, including a handful who came down from the defunct varsity squad, Carminer and his staff looked to establish cohesion and confidence in the maligned program.

“This is the foundation of Kennedy football right here,” Carminer said after the game.

Carminer graduated from Kennedy in 1996, when the program was still strong. Now, he’s hoping to rebuild it from the bottom up. League titles, like the ones the team notched in 1984 and 1988, aren’t on Carminer’s mind at the moment. He just wants a viable program that can finish a season.

About 50 supporters of the Kennedy squad turned out for the game. A half-dozen seniors from the varsity squad, ineligible to play junior varsity football, attended in street clothes. Some volunteered to work as the chain crew, measuring the ten yards required for each first down.

But the team showed no lack of effort on the field and remained upbeat and vocal on the sidelines.

“These kids are here because they love to play, and they want to play,” said Anthony Freeman, the varsity coach who has moved down to assist Carminer.

Ofa Vi is a 16-year-old lineman who excels as a ferocious interior blocker, one of the team’s strongest players and a vociferous leader on the sideline and in the huddle, coaches say. Vi is also a she. Between snaps, Vi took off her helmet and trotted to the water cooler on the sideline. Her brown hair extends nearly to her waist.

“I can’t wait to play, I just want to play,” she said between gulping breaths. Vi then pounded the plastic on her chest that stretches down from her shoulder pads.

“It’s all about heart,” she screamed before pulling on her helmet and buckling her chinstrap.

“It’s amazing really,” Freeman said. “Ofa is just a great player and has so much heart. Her teammates see her as just that, a great teammate.”

Matty Felder, 41, knows Kennedy football as well as anyone. He’s the school record-holder in interceptions, with 26 in his career. He was also a member of the 1984 championship team.

Now, Felder comes to every game. With the recent suspension of the varsity team’s season, his schedule is a little lighter. Felder blames what he sees as the school district’s lack of confidence in the future of the school – underscored by discussions of closing Kennedy due to low enrollment – as the biggest factor in the football program’s problems.

“Every year the district says Kennedy may have to be closed, and that uncertainty leaves the school dry of students, of talent,” he said.

Joe Alvarez, 43, is a longtime volunteer who tapes Kennedy football games for the coaches and players. After the loss, he stressed that he was impressed the players’ effort.

“These are the core kids,” Alvarez said. “They just won’t quit.”

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