APPLETON — During a season marked by change, the Xavier football team found some familiarity on Saturday, Sept. 12. The Hawks hosted the 10th annual Day Camp for Children with Autism at Rocky Bleier Field in Appleton.
Sixty campers moved from station to station participating in a variety of drills, including placekicking, passing and rushing the quarterback. The young people were also encouraged to show off their touchdown celebrations.
“This is fun, I look forward to it every year,” said senior strong safety Nick VandeHey. “I love it. It’s awesome. It’s fun for us.”
The camp is co-sponsored by the team and the Autism Society of the Fox Valley (ASFV). There is no fee to attend and each participant receives a T-shirt. Free lunch is provided for the families.
“The Xavier players do such a terrific job,” said Diane Nackers, an ASFV board member. “It’s a credit to the coaches. This is truly a blessing for the kids and the families. There are families that get together here once a year and they only connect here.”
“This is in our DNA,” said Xavier head coach Dave Hinkens. “To have this opportunity each year is special for our team.”
The 2015 season has brought new challenges for the Hawks. Xavier is one of three teams from Catholic high schools in the diocese to change conferences. Roncalli (Manitowoc) moved from the Packerland to the Eastern Wisconsin Conference. St. Mary Catholic (Neenah/Menasha) moved from the Olympian-Packerland-Small to the Big East. Xavier is now a member of the Bay Conference following eight seasons in the Eastern Valley.
The team opened with road victories at New London and Seymour. In week three, Xavier scored 14 unanswered points late in the game to defeat Menasha, the defending Division 2 state champions, 26-22. The Hawks improved to 4-0 on the eve of the football camp by defeating former Eastern Valley foe Waupaca 23-14.
“It’s exciting. There was definitely some doubt among the fans about how we would do in the new conference,” said VandeHey. “We put a lot of work in the off season and it is really an opportunity to prove ourselves against some really good opponents.”
The season is young, he added.
“The Menasha game was definitely a high, but that was only week three,” he said. “We have a lot of respect for Waupaca. We have to stay focused. Coach said that we have to keep working and get better every week.”
West De Pere is next on the schedule.
“Every week is a playoff week,” said VandeHey. “There are no weeks off this year. We are accepting the challenge and coming to play.”
The new conference schedule takes the Hawks to some schools for the first time including a trip to historic City Stadium to play Green Bay East on Oct. 2.
“I will make sure they know about a certain team from Green Bay (the Packers) that played on that field,” said Hinkens.
He added that senior leadership has helped the transition to the Bay. The Class of 2016 includes quarterback Zach Simons who was honored as a first team all-conference selection and Eastern Valley Offensive Player of the Year in 2014. Senior defensive back Bailey Headington was also a first team all-conference selection. Linebacker Spencer Jankowski and defensive lineman Ben Grow were recognized on the all-conference second team defense.
“We have 11 seniors on defense and a lot of seniors on offense,” said VandeHey. “We have a lot of experience..”
Prayer is important to the team. The Hawks pray as a group after every practice, before games and after games.
“We come together and coach says, ‘Who’s got us?’” explained VandeHey. “We grab hands and somebody says, ‘I got us’ and steps up and leads. We take pride in our faith and coming out and working hard every week.”
The camp is a no contact event, but some of the children deliver a blow to pads held by the Xavier players.
“One of our guys just got laid out by one of the kids,” said VandeHey with a laugh. “There is nothing more rewarding than seeing the smiles on those kids’ faces.
All campers received medals. For one child, it was a long time coming.
“Every single day for the last two years, he had his medal in his pocket and today he swapped it out for his new medal,” said Nackers. “He wasn’t able to be here last year. He retired his old medal and it looked like he carried it every day for two years.”