Jack Fessler is back. And the memories have come with him.
The Fenwick High School senior running back is thrilled to be back on the football field — any football field — after a knee injury made him a spectator for the entire 2017 season.
“It was awful. I would start crying before the games,” Fessler said. “I missed practice. I know a lot of kids don’t say that, but I missed going to practice and practicing because it was just awful to watch my brothers suffer in the heat. I wanted to be out there with them.”
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He was the Fessler of old last weekend, scoring three touchdowns in a resounding scrimmage victory over Franklin.
The Falcons open the 2018 season at home against Anna on Friday night. Fessler will be Fenwick’s primary back because, in a twist of irony, classmate Caleb Davis is injured and may miss a large chunk of the regular season.
“I’m going to take the responsibility and go with it,” Fessler said. “Having Caleb out … it stinks. I was in his shoes, and I’m playing for him. I had people play for me last year, and I know what he’s going through. That’s our main goal is playing for each other. I really think if we do that, we’ll be something special this year.”
Davis, the team’s returning rushing leader and outside linebacker, got hurt in the Falcons’ first scrimmage against the St. Xavier “B” squad, and senior inside linebacker Anthony Crisci was injured in the Franklin scrimmage.
First-year Fenwick coach Dan Haverkamp declined to describe the specific injuries. He said they’re “both longer term, but not season ending.”
The Falcons have looked strong in the preseason regardless, according to Haverkamp. The program hasn’t had a losing record since 2008.
“I do think coming off Friday night’s scrimmage that we should feel confident in ourselves and our ability to execute well,” Haverkamp said. “It’s also just a scrimmage, so I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves.
“We’ve made sure to tell the players to stay humble and don’t start thinking too much about what we’ve shown so far because we’re 0-0 like everyone else at this point. But we do have a lot of people on both sides of the ball with the ability to make plays.”
Anna traditionally puts a quality team on the field and was 7-4 last year, losing to Madison in the first round of the Division V playoffs.
This is the first game of the schools’ two-year contract.
“We’re not starting with a cupcake,” Rockets coach Nick Marino said. “It’s a tough matchup, but we’re excited to play. It should be a fun game to watch.”
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Representing the Midwest Athletic Conference, Anna returns less than half of its 2017 starters. The Rockets use what Marino called “a spread power offense” and a 4-2-5 defense.
Junior Riley Huelskamp returns and will be the primary rusher, and senior center Isaac Dodds is also among the team leaders. Junior Bart Bixler is stepping into the quarterback position.
“We graduated a lot of skill kids,” Marino said. “We’re fairly big up front, and we’ve got some kids that are a couple-year starters on the offensive line. Bixler is more of a runner, but he can throw it.”
Defensively, senior linebacker Luke Cantrell powers Anna in the middle. Dodds and junior Wil Luthman are two-way starters on the line, and Huelskamp plays safety.
“The strength of their defense is their line,” Haverkamp said. “They’re going to trust their four big bodies up front to get penetration in the passing game and make plays in the running game.”
In regard to Fenwick’s injuries, Haverkamp said Crisci’s position will be filled with a by-committee approach. Junior Tyler Houck had an interception against Franklin after replacing Davis on defense, while sophomores Carter Earls and Logan Miller will now play bigger roles in the offensive backfield.
Haverkamp pointed to senior inside linebacker Leo Bell, who was more of a defensive lineman last year, and Fessler as two of the Falcons’ preseason standouts.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Fessler has been labeled as the fastest player on the roster. He was expected to be a significant factor in last year’s ground attack, but everything changed on July 17, 2017, during a practice at the school.
“I took a wimpy cut and just felt it buckle and pop,” Fessler said of his right knee. “I just rolled and was like, ‘Oh, God.’ My knee locked. I couldn’t move it.”
It was a torn ACL, a torn MCL and torn meniscus. He underwent surgery 10 days later, and the rehabilitation process began.
Fessler admitted he’s struggled with the mental side of making it all the way back.
“I knew I could physically … but the mental part’s got to be there,” he said. “It’s been quite a journey.”
When two-a-days started this summer, Fessler still wasn’t sure if he was ready for full-go participation. He was limited against St. X, but finally cut loose during the Franklin scrimmage.
“The first drive, I was really hesitant,” Fessler said. “I was throwing up in my mouth before the game. I was just really nervous. I was like, ‘Dang, what if it happens again?’ But after that I just felt real excited. I was scoring, I was back to how I used to be, and it felt really great.”
Haverkamp said Fessler is the clear No. 1 back with Davis sidelined.
“We weren’t going to hesitate to give Jack a lot of touches even with Caleb, but he’s the man now,” Haverkamp said. “Speed’s his game, but he’s not afraid to get in the mix and keep churning his legs and grind for those extra 2 yards. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anybody as excited to score a touchdown in a scrimmage as Jack was on Friday night.”
Fessler said he won’t soon forget his first scoring run in that matchup.
“That was a validation,” he said. “It showed me I was really back. I was like, ‘I’m really here.’ I think I’m getting close to 100 percent. I don’t think I’m quite there yet. I’m probably about 95 right now. I still think I can get a little bit quicker.”
Asked about facing Anna in his first real game since 2016, Fessler replied, “I’m pumped and nervous. I’m calming myself down because I think my spirits are real high. I just know something good’s going to happen.”
What: Anna (7-4 in 2017) at Fenwick (6-4 in 2017), 7 p.m.
Where: Krusling Field, 4855 Ohio 122, Middletown
Series: First meeting