BILLINGS — In the eyes of a couple Poplar football players, practices have been more fun since Joe Hammar took over as head coach last year. He’s provided a mix of humor and intensity.
“Coach Hammar would walk into the room and ask, ‘Are we banging today?’ said Poplar senior fullback/linebacker Kaleb Neubauer. “Then we’d go to practice and hit.”
These types of practices were perfect for contact-craving players like Neubauer and senior lineman Michael Main, who thinks the physicality has helped the Indians be more prepared come game day.
“I haven’t had this kind of fun at practice in a long time,” Main said. "When practice gets boring, (Hammar) likes to get the team hyped. ... He’s a great coach."
Poplar dropped to JV after the 2016 season and spent the previous two years at that level. The Indians returned to varsity this fall and began their season with a 34-0 win over Harlem.
They’re riding a six-game losing streak heading into Friday’s season finale against Wolf Point, and the last two defeats came come by forfeit. Injuries and other absences have dampened what started as a fun, rejuvenating season.
Poplar’s third game of the season was at Shepherd. On one play late in the first half, Neubauer took a sweep, ran left and was brought down behind the line of scrimmage by a Shepherd defensive lineman. It was a basic form tackle, but Neubauer landed awkwardly. He heard a loud snap, like a couple of two-by-fours being slapped together, he said.
“It’s the most painful thing I’ve ever felt," Neubauer said.
Neubauer stayed on the ground for minutes, clutching his right knee and screaming in agony. He knew right away he’d shattered his right femur.
“I was right next to him, and I saw his leg. It kind of freaked me out,” Main said. “It was one of the worst injuries I’ve seen.”
It didn’t take long for Neubauer to realize his football season was over, and he likely won’t be back before wrestling ends this winter.
The injury took away the Indians’ team leader, the player who “holds the team together,” Hammar said. Neubauer was the first of many Poplar players to miss time this fall.
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Poplar had about 31 players when the season began in September, Hammar said. The active roster shrunk to 11 two weeks ago, when the Indians forfeited their scheduled road game against Huntley Project.
Bad grades and suspensions have accounted for some of the absences, but injuries — both nagging and season-ending — have been the main culprit, Hammar said. He wonders if the jump to varsity has played a role.
“I think some of the injuries do come from playing at a higher level, kids that are actually our size or bigger,” Hammar said. “We’re doing things that we’re not used to doing.”
That doesn’t mean Hammar is questioning the decision to move up from JV.
About 30 boys played football for Poplar when Hammar took over last season, he said, and the JV Indians finished with a 7-1 record.
“It was kind of pointless for us to stay JV at that point,” Hammar said. “I felt like kids were missing out on all-conference and possible scholarship offers, a chance to go to the next level.”
Nearly three months after their season-opening shutout of Harlem, the Indians are facing a situation similar to the one two years ago.
Hammar was expecting to have enough players for last week’s home game against Baker, but the Indians forfeited that game, too. A varsity team that forfeits at least one-quarter of its games in a season becomes ineligible for varsity the following season, according to Section 13 of the Montana High School Association’s rules and regulations. Poplar’s 2019 schedule is eight games large, so it has already forfeited a quarter of its contests.
Poplar can petition to stay at the varsity level next fall, and Hammar is confident the petition will get approved because so many players have gotten hurt.
Hammar worries the injuries might turn off prospective football players and shrink future rosters.
Overall, though, Hammar feels good about the direction of his program. Even Neubauer has found positives in an otherwise rough return to varsity.
“I kind of regret the whole broken leg thing, but besides that, I don’t regret playing football,” Neubauer said. “I was having fun.”