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New era begins for Smith Center

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

SMITH CENTER - First-year Smith Center High School football coach Darren Sasse is a 1991 Redmen alumnus and led the junior high program since 2001. Last winter, he took over for Roger Barta, who retired after 323 victories and eight state championships in 35 years. As well, longtime assistant coach Dennis Hutchinson retired.

Sasse has changed little with the team. Smith Center will run its wishbone offense and 4-3 defense, constantly repping the same plays and formations throughout practice that it has done for decades.

"These are all guys that I have coached four years ago or less," Sasse said. "It seemed like a lot of the same stuff."

However, the biggest change came during summer camp --- and then again in the pre-practice meeting before the season-opening practice Monday at Hubbard Stadium. In both sessions, Sasse stood up to address the team, a spot reserved for Barta for years.

"Camp was a little more nerve-wracking," Sasse said. "It felt different being the guy in front of the team at the beginning of the day instead of sitting in the corner watching Coach Barta."

After summer weights, five days of camp and plenty of 7-on-7 time -- including a Manhattan camp and three round-robins with Norton and Phillipsburg -- Sasse has spent plenty of days with his players.

Yet, it still was different to see him talk before the Redmen on Monday.

"Summer, all in all, it has pretty much been the same, just with our players and teammates and all that, but it really was different this morning, not seeing Coach Barta and Coach Hutch," senior running back Grant Lambert said. "Our assistant coaches and Sasse has been here for a long time, so everything pretty much feels the same. The things we do is all the same. Our practice was pretty much the same today. It was just different not seeing them and hearing coach talk before every practice. It's just different in that sense. It's a big change."

Smith Center, coming off a 6-4 season, a Class 2-1A district title and first-round playoff loss to Sterling, practiced Monday morning, then again at night. For the night practice, the team had a 12-minute meeting, then practiced from 6:42 to 8:16 p.m.

Throughout practice, Sasse often looked down at his phone for practice notes, an area that helped him connect to his team this summer. Sasse texted his players and used Google Drive to share documents, but doesn't use Facebook or Twitter.

"I don't know if Barta could figure out the phone, but Sasse has really picked up on the phone, and really gotten in contact with us," senior quarterback Kody Molzahn said. "Because nowadays, everybody has phones, everybody is on their phone all 24/7. That really connected with everybody there, sharing the playbook with us."

Sasse took over Barta's position as offensive coordinator and Coach Hutchinson's job as line coach. Veteran assistants Brock Hutchinson and Mike Rogers remained in place as defensive coordinator and special teams coordinator, respectively. Rogers will again help with the running backs, too.

Tim Wilson, a longtime Smith Center assistant who stepped aside last year to help out on the family farm, returned and is the head junior high coach. Jared Kingsbury, a former Redmen standout, is a varsity assistant and brings a young, vocal and perpetual energy to practice.

Last fall, Sasse said he felt sadness with Barta suddenly announced his retirement a few days after the season. While Rogers, Hutchinson and Wilson coached winter sports, Sasse often accompanied Barta to coaching clinics in January and February. The two grew close over the years. After Barta retired, the coaches all talked separately.

Then, the administration called in the coaching staff into the conference room at school to discuss the program's future. Sasse said "initially nobody wanted it."

"Not for fear of anything," Sasse said. "I think everybody just thought it should be somebody else. I think we all respect each other so much that we thought that (another) person should be the one that's in charge."

Darren talked with his wife, Heather. He knew it was going to be a little bit more time, but already worked Sundays with Barta and the staff already.

"It was not something I was ever afraid of, especially with these guys having your back," Sasse said of his assistants.

Sasse and Barta still talk often, especially in the spring. Barta watched conditioning and camp and has spent time with his kids and grandkids.

His son, Brooks, is the longtime Holton coach and Mason, Roger's grandson, plays on the Holton team. Hutchinson, Brock's father, has golfed often. He called Brock after the first practice Monday and asked how it went. Dennis normally watched Brock's grandkids during the day, but all four of them will be in school for the first time this fall.

Sasse said Dennis Hutchinson will likely be around the junior high more this season because Brock's oldest son is on the team. When asked what the biggest difference was between th past and this year, Brock smiled, laughed and said, "I don't have anybody to cuss at."

"It's a change," Brock said. "The little things that go on. But it's a new era now, and coach Sasse has done this for a long time."

Barta is expected to catch some Holton and Smith Center games this fall; Sasse said he wants Barta "around as much as possible."

"He doesn't really give his opinion very often," Sasse said. "If I really have a concern, he will talk to me, but he is not going to stick his nose in. He feels like he doesn't want to overstep his boundary. He is just that kind of guy. He wants me to feel like it is our team now."