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New faces filling leadership void for Comets

Steering the ship

The Newman football team lost a bevy of starters from its 2012 team. It'll be up to a group of new faces to fill that void.
The Newman football team lost a bevy of starters from its 2012 team. It'll be up to a group of new faces to fill that void.

Turnover from year to year is really nothing new for the Newman Comets, what with longtime coach Mike Papoccia's penchant for playing seniors over underclassmen.

But even with that tradition, this season's changes are a bit much.

The Comets lost 17 of their 22 starters from last year's Class 3A state semifinalist squad, including 10 of 11 on defense.

"It seems like a whole new team," senior quarterback A.J. Sharp said, "but it's coming along great so far. We have a lot of guys stepping up and showing that they can lead the way for us.

That's what Papoccia and his coaching staff hope to see a lot more of. Ask any Comet, and he'll tell you that leadership is the key ingredient lost with last year's senior class.

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"We've never had better, in my view," said Papoccia, who is entering his 34th season as Newman's head coach. "The group we had last was full of such tremendous leaders, and we're hoping the cream will rise to the top again with this group.

"We've got a lot of juniors and seniors who have really grown up, physically and maturity-wise, and we're optimistic that they learned a lot from the group ahead of them."

There are some big shoes to fill, but it doesn't seem to faze this year's Comets too much. While they admit there is a little pressure that goes along with replacing so many key cogs on the field and in the locker room, the overarching theme from this year's players is excitement.

"We have a lot of guys who are excited to get their chance to show what they can do," said senior Michael Ely, the lone returning starter on defense. "Those leadership spots are hard to fill, and it's something that takes time, but we're comfortable with growing into those roles as a team."

It's a role that Sharp can help his teammates adapt to. As the starting QB a year ago, he had to assume the natural leadership duties attributed to that position. He has the utmost confidence that he can again steer the ship smoothly, and that his classmates will be quick studies when it comes to taking their own leadership cues.

"Quarterback is just one of those spots where you need to take a leadership role all the time," said Sharp, who also runs things as a guard on the basketball team. "It was easier last year because I had a lot of other great leaders to back me up in the huddle.

"This year, it's more responsibility on me, but I'm ready for it … and I think my teammates are also. I have no doubt that they'll be there for me again."

The most comforting thing is something that has been passed down through the generations of Newman football: make your own way.

Papoccia knows as well as anyone that asking a new group of players to morph into the same mold as the teams before them is a fairly fruitless endeavor. Instead, he and his coaches always urge each team to find their own niche and put their own stamp on the tradition-rich program.

"We learned a lot from those exceptional leaders last year," senior Nate Terveer said, "and we know it's not going to be just one or two guys who are going to fill those shoes. We want to take the ball and run with it, and we're ready to make our own names for ourselves as a group."

The Comets are also quick to point out that despite not having a lot of familiar names in the starting lineup, there is no panic. Rarely does a Newman player stay on the field for an entire game, and that builds depth amongst the guys who are fighting for starting spots.

That means when the new season rolls around, there are already quite a few experienced players, even if they were backing up seniors the year before.

"We have some good experience that maybe doesn't show up on the depth chart," Papoccia said, "and these kids understand that it's their time now. We could be as good as we were last year, even though a lot of the names might not be as familiar."

Newman FYI

• In the last 30 years, the Comets have just three losing seasons and have qualified for the playoffs 23 times. Newman boasts a 261-75 record in that span, a .777 winning percentage, with 12 seasons with 10 wins or more and 16 years with two losses or fewer. The Comets have won four state championships and added a pair of runner-up finishes.

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