If you saw Bellevue West play for the first time Friday evening, you’d assume the Thunderbirds’ season had gone off without a hitch. Coach Michael Huffman’s group looks every bit of a 3-0 team, one looking to defend its state title from 2019.
But here’s the catch: Nothing about Bellevue West’s season has been normal so far. Home opener against Omaha Burke? Canceled after Omaha Public Schools (OPS) decided to postpone its fall sports season. The Week 3 matchup with Creighton Prep? Canceled because a Junior Jays player tested positive for COVID-19.
“We tell them a lot and I use it every week that we can feel sorry for ourselves that we’ve only gotten to play three but man, we all have friends. I have a lot of friends in Omaha Public Schools and they’re not playing any and they barely live miles away,” Huffman said Friday night following Bellevue West’s 49-14 win over Kearney. “I have kids that option-enrolled here that live in Omaha and they get to play but their neighbor doesn’t. We’re just lucky we even have a chance to play and we talk about it a lot and I hope they believe that. I think they do.”
Huffman is impressed with his players so far this year. “Our kids play hard, they love football and they just love the opportunity,” he said, but the Thunderbirds can still get better.
Hard to believe, too. Bellevue West has won by scores of 55-0 (Bellevue East), 49-29 (Millard South) and now 49-14 (Kearney). What could there possibly be to fix?
“They just want to get better,” Huffman said. “I talk about where they’re at in the echelon of Bellevue West football. Every kid wants to be at the top but we have too many penalties and we’ve got to tackle better. We’ll get there.”
There’s also some young players that are filling key spots for the first time this year. Bellevue West is still a fairly young team, even if it appears like they’re firing on all cylinders right now.
Take senior wide receiver Keagan Johnson. He had four touchdowns against Kearney on Friday, two rushing and two receiving. Junior running back LJ Richardson took the ball into the endzone three times himself. Junior tight end Micah Riley is a tough one to bring down, and his 6-foot-6, 230-pound frame was every bit the challenge for the Bearcats’ defense.
It’d be nice if the team could keep rolling, but Week 7’s matchup was scheduled against Omaha Northwest, another canceled matchup with OPS. Huffman has something in the works, but he’s only about 10% confident it’ll pan out. There’s an out-of-state team that is open to playing, but not necessarily in Nebraska. With Bellevue West’s district limiting travel outside of the state, it seems like a moot point.
Huffman has to be careful too. He doesn’t want to say too much—and he hasn’t even told his players much about the potential Week 7 opponent—because he doesn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. He’s done that before. Twice, in fact.
“Hell, we were on the bus,” he said. “We had a seating chart, a charter bus. We were passing out the pre-packaged meals because you can’t do the old stuff anymore. That was a bummer. I don’t think this one is going to shake out.”
And if it doesn’t, well, he doesn’t want it to change the Thunderbirds’ mood.
“What we try to do is we try to control what we can control, and that’s showing up every day to practice, working hard and hopefully—and this sounds weird—playing the game that week,” Huffman said. “That’s the bummer. We’re off again next week. We’ve been off three times now. That’ll be three out of six weeks. Now hopefully after that it’ll be straight through but early in the season when we thought we had games lined up, we’d tell the kids and you could see their hopes get up. I would crush them.
“Football stinks anyway because it’s the worst time investment of any sport. Maximum you play 13 games. For us? You ready for this? Maximum we’ll play this year is nine and that’s if we go to the state finals. That’s insane to think about.”
For now, Huffman and his Bellevue West team will show up on Monday and adjust into their bye week plan. They’re used to it now. What’s normally a half hour of film will now be the team watching the whole Kearney game film. From there, it’ll be 60-70 minutes of practice Tuesday-Thursday alongside the JV team.
It’s not what Huffman wants. It’s not what his team wants either. They know they’re fortunate to be playing though, even if it looks different than any season they’ve had before.
And if you were watching Bellevue West for the first time Friday night, you’d have no idea. You would have assumed this team had been playing every week for the last six weeks.
Instead . . .
“We’re getting pretty good at our bye week schedule, unfortunately,” Huffman said. “That’s not how it’s supposed to be. But we’re getting pretty good at it.”
Erin is the Deputy Editor and Digital Marketing Strategist for Hail Varsity. She has covered Nebraska athletics since 2012, which has included stops at Bleacher Report, Cox Media Group’s Land of 10, and even Hail Varsity (previously from 2012-2017). She has also been featured on the Big Ten Network, NET’s Big Red Wrap-Up, and a varsity of radio shows nationwide. When not covering the Huskers, Erin is probably at Chipotle.