South Eugene's Joelie McKinley (70) and Austin Mills (22) celebrate a tackle during the 2019 season. (Courtesy photo)
South Eugene's Joelie McKinley (70) and Austin Mills (22) celebrate a tackle during the 2019 season. (Courtesy photo)

Perhaps no team has more at stake at the start of fall practice this week than South Eugene football.

The Axe are trying to rebuild their program after sitting out the last two seasons due to low numbers. It's a chore that falls in the hands of coach Chad Kessler, his staff and about 45 players.

“I'm running the gamut of emotions,” said Kessler, a longtime assistant in the program who was the team's head coach from 2010 to 2012. “I'm stressed, I'm nervous, I'm excited.”

South Eugene won 10 games in an eight-season span in 6A before meeting criteria to drop down to 5A in 2018. The Axe went 5-4 in each of their two seasons in 5A but were unable to field a team in the COVID-shortened season and last fall.

Not having a team took a toll on the school, according to athletic director Dave Hancock.

“Football involves so many other things,” Hancock said. “We have a good soccer program, but it didn't replace a Friday night football game, whether you have a winning team or a losing team.

“The event of a Friday night under the lights is a unifying thing for the school. It was a void last fall. Our kids missed it. Everyone's looking forward to it.”

South Eugene's thriving boys soccer program, which had 67 players on three teams in 2021, has had an impact on football. But Kessler, hired to replace Kenny Koberstein as coach early this year, believes the biggest hit on football turnout has been publicity about the sport's safety in recent years.

“We've watched the attrition,” he said. “I really do attribute it to the concussion aspect. We just need to do a better job of informing our parent groups on things like equipment, Heads Up training and the changes to the rules of the game.

“It's still an upward climb because what's obvious is people who have made up their minds have made up their minds. It's tough to revisit that conversation with some of them, and really get traction.”

Kessler, also the school's wrestling coach, is well acquainted with the territory. A 1983 South Eugene graduate, he began coaching in the football program in the 1990s.

“He knows it better than anybody,” Hancock said. “And he's a kid magnet. He took over our wrestling program last November and we had one wrestler, and we ended up with 18 kids. He's just the right person at the right time at the right spot.”

Kessler has a different perspective than when he was the head coach a decade ago. The Axe went 2-28 in those three seasons, with one of the wins a forfeit.

“That was a nightmare,” Kessler recalled. “I wasn't ready, and neither were a lot of other folks. But we've changed that.”

Kessler said South Eugene needs to do a better job of connecting with players at the youth level. He said that many players from the district gained experience in Kidsports – a Eugene-based youth organization – but in past years they have lost players to nearby schools.

The key, he said, is to show them that South Eugene is a viable program to develop as a player.

“Darn straight. I know that we can,” he said. “We just need to give it a really good effort here.”

The current crop of players has only a handful of seniors.

“We have a lot of kids that have not played football until this year,” Kessler said. “But they're hungry, and they're just a bunch of sponges, just soaking it all up. We get 99 percent of these guys back for us next year, and there's some really good-looking kids out there, so we're super excited.”

Kessler said South Eugene will field a freshman/sophomore team to play games on Mondays. He will manage the quarters to keep as many eligible as possible for Fridays.

“We wouldn't play guys that we don't feel are ready for a Friday night,” he said.

The Axe will play in the 5A Midwestern League, which features state power Thurston and perennial playoff teams Crater and Churchill. They open with nonleague games against Portland Interscholastic League teams McDaniel and Cleveland.

“It's not about wins and losses for us, it's just a matter of getting it back on the map,” Hancock said.

Kessler is confident that his players can have success.

“We're definitely going to be competitive,” Kessler said. “The learning curve for them, they just keep on shrinking it every day. We'd just love to have more of them, and we plan to.”