Back when Smoky Newsom was a student at VCHS in the mid 1980s, the state of Vandalia football was bleak, to say the least.
Not only was there no youth program to speak of, there was talk of doing away with the high school program.
My, how things have changed.
Thoughts of folding the high school program now would seem ludicrous, as the Vandals will be looking to make their third straight playoff appearance this coming season.
And a lot of thanks for VCHS’s recent success can be credited to a feeder program that now not only exists – but is thriving like never before.
If you don’t believe it, check out the sea of red blanketing Kelley Park some weekday afternoon this month.
Somewhere among the program-record 130 Vandalia Youth Organization football players engulfing an increasingly crowded practice facility, you’ll find Newsom, now VYO Football League Commissioner and head coach of the eighth-grade Junior Vandals.
He shouldn’t be hard to spot – just look for the guy with a big smile on his face.
‘It just keeps growing every year,’ said Newsom of the VYO program, which has seen a 34-percent jump in participation since his first season as commissioner three years ago.
‘It’s very exciting.’
The turnout also excites league treasurer Randy Edwards, who remembers the bad ole’ days before the VYO existed.
‘The high school program was struggling back then, and there was talk of shutting it down all together,’ Edwards recalled.
Part of the problem was the fact that VCHS football players were always playing catch up due to the lack of a youth program.
‘Our kids were learning fundamentals as freshmen,’ Edwards said. ‘It was hard to compete.’
So, along with Tom Denton and former VCHS head football coach Art Newton, Edwards started a VYO program.
It was a move that paid immediate dividends, and Edwards credits Newton for making things click in the early days.
‘Art had just left teaching and coaching to sell insurance,’ Edwards said. ‘We were fortunate to have him coach for us, and Tom and I took care of the organization.’
Flash forward to 2008, and the VYO program is set to begin its 23rd season this Saturday when the fifth-, sixth- and seven-graders travel to Effingham for a jamboree.
The eighth-grade Junior Vandals – coming off back-to-back undefeated seasons – will travel to Lone Oak, Ky., the same day for a jamboree of its own.
Newsom and company will be hard-pressed to come up with enough uniforms to pass around between now and then.
The eighth-grade Junior Vandals have 32 players out, up from 29 a year ago when they won the Junior Mid-State Conference and finished 8-0 for the second time in as many years.
‘They can’t wait to start,’ Newsom said. ‘They say they want to be undefeated again this year. They are all excited and raring to go.’
Tom Reams will help Newsom Mike Cripe, John Nestleroad and Dan Lutz will have their hands full with a whopping 46 players on their sixth-grade roster – a jump of 13 from last year’s 5-3 team.
Newsom said that there are so many players at the sixth-grade level that the squad will be split up into two teams. He hopes to add additional games to the schedule in order to ensure the large group gets plenty of playing time.
The fifth-grade roster will include at least 30 players, with Steve Bradley, Dave Rademacher and Mark Tessman handling coaching duties.
The seventh-grade team has just under 20 players and will be coached by Mark Abendroth and Andy Smith.
The tremendous all-around turnout has Newsom ecstatic for a number of reasons.
‘It should pay big dividends for the near future,’ Newsom said. ‘It means that a whole bunch of kids will be going into the football program all the way through high school.’
And – despite recent success in the win column – the latter remains one of Newsom’s top priorities.
‘I think bringing kids up slowly at different levels is important,’ Newsom said. ‘That way, by the time they get to high school, they should be up and running.’
One way Newsom and company prepare VYO players for the high school level is by running similar offensive and defensive schemes as VCHS head coach John Stout employs.
It helps that Newsom works at VCHS and is in regular contact with Stout’s coaching staff.
‘I appreciate all their help and input,’ Newsom said.
That team atmosphere extends to the field and beyond.
‘Smoky’s done an excellent job – he’s the engine,’ Edwards said. ‘But it takes a lot of dedicated people, and we’ve been very fortunate over the years to have some great people help us out. I really appreciate that.’
Considering every position in the VYO football program – from coaches, the chain gang and concessions – are volunteer-only, such dedication cannot be taken for granted.
Fortunately, many have bought into another trait Newsom strives to instill into his teams.
‘I want kids to have a passion for football like I do,’ Newsom said. ‘Winning’s nice, but we want to focus on teaching kids fundamentals, having fun and having a passion for the game.’
Such wasn’t always the case back when Newsom suited up for the Vandals during the dark day in the mid-80s. But thanks to his and many other’s efforts with the VYO, countless numbers of Vandalia kids now share Newsom’s passion for the game.
For more information or to inquire about helping the VYO program, contact Newsom at 425-3707 or visit http://vandaliajrfootball.com/.