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Emotional Phillips starts football practice missing Mike Larson

Phillips started practice Wednesday afternoon without longtime defensive coordinator Mike Larson, who died unexpectedly in January.

Phillips’ football team practices on Wednesday.
Phillips’ football team practices on Wednesday.
Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

The strangest thing about pandemic football for Phillips isn’t the spring season or the five-game schedule.

For coach Troy McAllister and the Wildcats, it’s moving forward without one of the faces of the program.

Phillips started practice Wednesday afternoon without longtime defensive coordinator Mike Larson, who died unexpectedly in January.

“I can’t lie,” said senior defensive back Deavion Pierce, a Miami (Ohio) recruit. “Not just me, the whole team is still dealing with it right now.

“It’s still early. But we’ve just got to push through it because he wouldn’t want us moping around.”

Willie Jones is another senior defensive back heading off to play in the Mid-American Conference this fall, at Bowling Green. He’s also trying to adjust to the loss of a charismatic coach who cast a long shadow on the Public League’s most successful program.

“He made the game fun,” Jones said of Larson. “The energy, he just made everything exciting.”

Larson also held his defensive players to high standards, which Jones appreciated as he prepares for the next level.

“No (college) coach is going to be nice to you,” Jones said. “They’re going to be hard on you. Him being so hard on us, we got used to it. He kept us motivated.”

Like the players, McAllister is feeling his way forward.

“It definitely was an emotional day,” McAllister said. “You wake up and you’re excited. It’s the first day of football practice. My first response would be calling or texting coach Larson. ...

“We have to find a way to push through and lean on each other to get through it.”

The season won’t last long. especially for Phillips and other Public League teams. While opening night for the rest of the state is March 19, CPS teams won’t start till the following weekend.

McAllister said Public League coaches were hoping to play five conference games followed by crossovers based on regular-season standings, kind of like a one-round CPS playoff.

“But we’re going to take anything we can possibly get,” he said. “For us to get these five games, it’s a different type of season and yeah, we want to win.

“But there’s also a development piece for the younger guys. We’ve got a really good junior class, but a lot of them haven’t played varsity before.”

And with state powers Batavia and Mount Carmel looming in the first two weeks of the fall season, it’s critical to get those younger players some game experience.

But for Pierce and Jones, it’s all about the here and now, and having the chance to play a little more football with their buddies after months of waiting and uncertainty.

“At some point in time, it felt like we (weren’t) going to have a season,” Pierce said. “But I never lost hope though. I never lost hope.”