Home-schooled Central Panthers football team prepares for its first test

ARNOLD • The Central Panthers junior-varsity football team practices on a grass lot next to Rockport Baptist Church with orange cones that serve as yard markers.

No end zones, no scoreboard, no bleachers.

It’s the first year for the team of home-schooled boys who are led by a pastor who played college football at age 51.

The 14 boys, all of whom play offense and defense, are about to start a season in which they’ll play schools with established programs, including Vianney, De Smet, Brentwood and University City.

Woody Loving, who plays wide receiver and defensive back, isn’t intimidated. He’s 13. This is his first time on an organized sports team, and he’s ready.

His dad, Bill Loving, smiled and said his son didn’t know anything about those schools or what the Panthers might be up against.

“I know a lot of those schools have more people going out for sports than we have here,” he said.

The Panthers’ first-ever game is Saturday. They’ll travel to Clarksville, Mo., to play the Clopton-Elsberry Indian Hawks.

Playing against school football teams is a rare opportunity for home-schooled youths.

“If you don’t have a school, you don’t have a team,” said Dana Heisserer, who watched from the parking lot as her sons, Jacob, 14, and Jeremy, 13, warmed up before practice this week.

Both have played on other sports teams through the Catholic Youth Council, but this is their first time on a football team.

So since early August when practice began, they have made the drive from their home in Florissant to Arnold, a commute that sometimes took an hour and 20 minutes in heavy traffic.

They must fit the long drive there, and back home, into their rotation of school work. And the boys must factor in exercising and running at home in addition to their team practices.

“It’s a big commitment for them to train,” she said. Other families drive from Ste. Genevieve and Farmington.

The “Central” in the team’s name is a nod to what Coach Bob Schembre, an associate pastor at Rockport Baptist, hopes will be the team’s location within the Mid-East Missouri Homeschool Football Association, which he formed this spring.

Schembre — who was a third-string middle linebacker for Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., in 2008 at age 51 while a studying for his master’s degree in theology — coached the eighth-grade football team at Westminster Christian Academy last year, but gave that up to organize the league after he saw an interest among families in his church who home-school.

He emailed area home-schooling groups to tell them about the team.

For now, the Panthers are the association’s only team. Next year, he hopes to add a North team of players from O’Fallon, Wentzville and St. Charles, and a South team with players from the Jackson and Cape Girardeau areas. He wants to add a varsity team next year.

The Missouri State High School Activities Association decided in the fall of 2012 to allow its member schools to compete against a student team of a home-schooling association.

Six home-schooling associations have registered with the association, but only one for football — an eight-man team from Centerview, Mo., about 50 miles southeast of Kansas City.

The Panthers are not a member of the association. But many schools in the St. Louis area register their varsity teams — member schools can play member schools — but not their junior-varsity teams, said Jason West, an association spokesman.

That gives the Panthers, most of whom are 12 to 14 years old, more latitude in whom they can play.

On Thursday, they readied for their first game on a sweltering afternoon. Jacob Sheppard of Cedar Hill practiced punting before practice started. He’s also a tight end and defensive tackle.

“Follow through with your leg as high as you can,” yelled Schembre, who was released from the hospital earlier that day after surgery this week to have five stents put in his heart.

Jacob said the Panthers were ready for the game Saturday.

“We all work as a team,” he said.

They will never know homefield advantage, at least this season. They don’t have a regulation field, so all of their games are on the road.

Quarterback and defensive end Ernest Dickmann of Affton isn’t worried.

“I don’t think it will affect us very much,” he said. “My mom is going to yell really, really loud.”

Leah Thorsen covers Jefferson and south St. Louis counties. Follow her on Twitter.
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