Stetson football coach Roger Hughes knows there is no way he will be able to practice what he has been preaching in the leadup to the first Hatters football game in 57 years.
He also knows it will be tough for his players.
For many of those players, it has been an almost 400 day countdown to the return of Stetson football. For Hughes, the countdown has been even longer. For the community of DeLand and the University itself, the countdown has covered lifetimes.
So, no matter what the coaches having been preaching during this final week, emotions will be very high for the Hatters on Saturday when they take the field at newly renovated Spec Martin Memorial Stadium to face another first-year program, Warner University. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
The sellout crowd will be emotional. The many former Stetson players from the 1940s and 1950s, who will be recognized on the field, will be emotional. There will be tears shed. Stomachs will be twisted in knots from excitement and anticipation. There is no way for that to be avoided.
Hughes, who admits that he is an emotional person, knows that he will be a basket case. But, at the same time, he knows that he and the rest of the Stetson coaching staff will have to make sure the Hatters players stay calm, stay focused and stay relaxed.
“The fact that we will have a packed stadium and all of the distractions of having the first game in 57 years, you just can't simulate those things,” Hughes said. “We have been talking to our team about focus. The thing that we are excited to find out is we think we have some talented players at certain positions, but we just don't know how they will react. They don't have any experience, and there is no substitute for experience.”
Not only do the Hatters not have game experience, but they also don’t know much about their opponent. Warner coach Jeff Schaum and his staff are going through much the same experience as the Hatters. It is the Royals first game, with a largely untested squad. What Warner does have that Stetson doesn’t is upperclassmen. The Royals have two seniors and five juniors on their squad.
“I think our kids are anxious to see another color jersey,” Hughes said. “Our coaching staff is anxious to find out where we need to improve and how our players stack up against the others we are playing. We don't really know the offensive and defensive schemes that Warner will run against us. So, for the first quarter, we'll be trying to figure out is they are a four-man front, a three-man front, what looks they will have in the secondary.”
For the coaches and players, those things will take care of themselves once the ball is in the air. It will be those final minutes before kickoff that will be the most difficult.
“My biggest concern, in addition to not knowing what to expect, is that our guys are going to be so jacked up,” Hughes said. “We are going to have to calm them down and make sure they are using their techniques and do the things that we are supposed to do. There are going to be things where they won't know what to do. They just have to remember to handle their rules and keep going. It is going to be a four-round prize fight, it won't be won in the first quarter.”
The players also know it will be difficult to control their emotions. One of the four captains, Fletcher Eldemire, who was one of the first players on the squad, said they will have to look to their coaches to find a sense of calm.
“I have talked to the offensive line about it being a little too much to handle,” Eldemire said. “My heart will be beating out of my chest. The coaches always talk about business, so I am going to have to find a way to keep my cool but, at the same time, soak it all in. We want to be able to stress that it is a huge day but, at the same time, not let the kids get too emotional.”
Hughes said showing that calmness before the game will be difficult for all.
“I am going to be as emotional as they are,” Hughes sais. “I am an emotional guy and I am sure it will be intense. I am going to be pretty jacked up for the game. I don't know how you couldn't be when we have a crowd like we are going to have, with an atmosphere like we are going to have. Division I athletics is the best and, hearing the buzz in the town, seeing the response we have had at scrimmages. Football is a big deal. I would be lying through my teeth is I said I was going to be stone-faced and unemotional, because I am not.”
Once the ball is in play, however, the emotion will be out of the way. Then, it will be a matter of taking care of business.
“It has been our mantra since we have been in fall camp to not believe the hype,” Hughes said. “All of the talk about this game leading up to it may make you think that you are better than you are. We are not going to be as good as some people think we are, but we are also not going to be as bad either.
“We have tried to create some distractions for practice, but there is just no way that we can control the adrenalin of 18 and 19 year olds. We will try to manage it and, after the first hit and they have been knocked down, we’ll be able to get their focus and get down to business.”
Pregame festivities will begin in the stadium at about 6:30 p.m. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Fans unable to attend the game will be able to listen to the Stetson Radio Network on AM 1230 in New Smyrna Beach, AM 1490 in DeLand and AM 810 in Orlando. The pregame tailgate show will start at 6:30 p.m.
In addition, fans who want to see the game, but we unable to get a ticket, can watch online at GoHatters.com on Hatter Vision. The cost for an annual membership to see more than 150 Stetson Athletics events online throughout the year is just $69.95. The cost to watch just the game on Saturday is $7.95, which is the same price as a monthly subscription.