COVID-19, spring season, other adversity propel Badgers to championship game

Ben Lasseter / Messenger Photo
After a practice Wednesday at Little Rock Southwest High School, linebacker Noah Kema (centered, gray shorts) and teammates listen to Coach Zac Erekson.
“We are here to win a national championship,” the coach says. “Make sure that everything you do between now and Saturday puts you in a good position to do that.”

“If COVID hadn’t happened, I don’t know if we’re sitting here playing for a national championship. That, to me, is probably the biggest thing that has benefited us.”

Zac Erekson, Snow College football head coach

EPHRAIM–In the summer of 2017, high-school graduate Noah Kema decided to take a break from football to go on a church-sponsored mission trip in Newport Beach, California. Two years later, the inside linebacker decided to miss one more season to rebuild his body to walk on for Snow College in 2020, hungry as ever to get on the field again. 

In March of 2020, right after he made the Badger roster, his patient plan was coming to fruition when an unprecedented scenario became the worst possible reality for the approaching fall season. Due to the nationwide COVID-19 outbreak, the National Junior College Athletic Association cancelled all of the games scheduled in 2020. 

“We were put through a lot of adversity,” he says about the interrupted practice schedules, COVID-19 rules and regular season rescheduled to spring that became his team’s reality. “It was crazy.”

Over the next year, Kema, who came to Snow from Texas, saw his family only once for Thanksgiving. He says he felt especially sorry for the freshmen on the team who were experiencing the same level of long-term and unforeseen separation from family, but for the first times in their lives.

The team had to cancel workout programs three times over the course of the following year, first in March, then July, then again in August. Though they were always grateful for the rescheduled season, many on the team, as well as Head Coach Zac Erekson, agree playing football in the spring was never ideal.

“It just feels weird,” says Erekson, who, since taking over as head coach in November, has coached his undefeated team to the NJCAA national championship. “Here we are in June, and we’re playing football. I’m happy about what’s happened, I’m happy where we are; I would never want to do this again.”

But because of the results the delayed season has brought, Kema, his teammates and Erekson believe the growth the team has experienced since that infamous March in 2020 shows the challenges of 2020 were greater than just temporary hardship.

“If COVID hadn’t happened, I don’t know if we’re sitting here playing for a national championship,” Erekson says. “That, to me, is probably the biggest thing that has benefited us.”

The pandemic brought an opportunity to overcome an enormous challenge. The coach reasons that by answering that challenge with discipline and continued hard work, the players have become stronger on and off the field.

“This was the greatest real-life life lesson,” Erekson says. “We don’t get to control what happens on the outside; we only control how we respond to it, and our reactions shape the outcomes.”

The fall 2020 season was rescheduled to spring. The COVID-19 guidelines forced the team to keep almost constantly to small groups, spend most free time in dorms and limit practices to only 18 times in the fall. 

All the while, according to Brandon Folau, another linebacker, many players remained skeptical about whether the promised spring season would even take place. 

On five or six occasions, he says, entire groups of players had to quarantine for two weeks when individuals tested positive for the virus. Three coaches even had to miss the home game against ASA Miami on Saturday, April 17, though the Badgers prevailed and won 27-6 that day, unfazed and still undefeated.

Now, only one game stands between the Badgers and the football national title. That game is tomorrow against top-ranked Hutchinson Community College at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Arkansas at 3 p.m. MST. 

“Adversity births success. If you overcome adversity, you can overcome much more,” Kema says about how COVID-19 played into the team improving and earning a spot in that game. 

In one example of the players relying on mental fortitude, the Badgers started the season with a last-minute comeback victory on the road over Iowa Western Community College, which was ranked second then and finished the year 7-1 and in fourth.

The Badgers trailed 13-8 at halftime, then 30-18 with eight minutes left. In the fourth quarter, the Badgers scored one touchdown with 10:39 remaining after a 75-yard, eight-play drive that resulted in a 20-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Garrison Beach to Taylor Larsen. With 14 seconds remaining, Beach connected with Tejhaun Palmer for a 19-yard touchdown. Snow won the game, 31-30. 

“It was crazy, like a movie,” Folau says. “It set the tone for the season.”

Adversity aside, though, the interruption the COVID-19 pandemic has brought has not been without silver linings to the team. With the season delayed seven months, the players got to spend extra time developing their bodies and skills, and the coaches got to teach strategy and game plans more thoroughly.

“For junior college, that’s unbelievable. To be able to have had them for that long and have our thumb on them, it’s allowed us to develop and grow and mature while going through that adversity together,” the coach says.

Individual benefits also include that participation in the spring season does not cost players a year of athletic eligibility. Starting next fall, if he chooses, Kema can still play four more years and redshirt one at the collegiate level. Folau, who redshirted in the fall of 2019, can play four more.

According to Folau, players made better grades this year with most classes conducted online.

Erekson says though it comes from different places than having overcome challenges together, there is one more element, in particular, that brings his team closer.

“One thing that may be very unique to our program is that you will hear the word ‘love’ a lot, from coaches, from players. They love each other,” he explains.

Erekson has adopted this philosophy of fostering love among his players from a coach he used to work for at Vandegrift High School in Austin, Texas. 

“I want them to know you don’t always have to be the ‘tough guy’ as the football player. It’s okay to tell a friend that you love them,” he says. 

While they are enjoying a taste of the Southeast this week, the Badgers remain focused on finishing what they started.

“We are here to win a national championship,” Erekson said in a speech to his players after practice Wednesday. “Make sure that everything you do between now and Saturday puts you in a good position to do that.” 

For players like Kema, who is just happy to get on the field again after four years off, the motivation to perform at the highest possible level already comes from within. 

Reflecting on those years on a path less traveled by, he is happy with how things have gone. He says everything that has happened for him, good and bad, was “100 percent worth it.”