Vermont Shrine football team back to tackling an old challenge

  • Hartford's Jackson Balch blocks another player during Vermont's practice for the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl at Castleton University in Castleton, Vt., on Tuesday, August 3, 2021. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report for America photographs — Alex Driehaus

  • Vermont's all-star team practices for the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl at Castleton University in Castleton, Vt., on Tuesday, August 3, 2021. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Vermont's teams played seven-on-seven touch football last season. The Shrine game will be many players' last opportunity to play a tackle game. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

  • Hartford's Cole Jasmin throws a pass during Vermont's practice for the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl at Castleton University in Castleton, Vt., on Tuesday, August 3, 2021. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/5/2021 9:53:50 PM
Modified: 8/7/2021 2:57:26 PM

CASTLETON, Vt. — When Jackson Balch put his pads on for the first Vermont practice for Saturday’s Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl, something felt off.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused Vermont to shift to seven-on-seven touch football in 2020, so the Shrine Bowl is the first organized tackle football game since fall 2019 for the players on the Vermont team.

After all that time, and after a season where pads weren’t necessary, Balch — an offensive lineman from Hartford High — had to make sure he was putting his equipment on properly.

“Felt a little weird to strap up again,” Balch said on Tuesday. “Just like, ‘Does this fit right? Is this how it’s supposed to go? Is this strap tight enough?’ ”

It didn’t take long for the intensity to ramp up at Shrine Bowl workouts with the added contact.

From that first practice, the players felt a different vibe on the field than they had playing touch football. Hartford wide receiver and returnerJacob Dwinell said stepping back on the field with pads on for the first day was the best feeling in the world.

“It’s more competitive,” Dwinell said Tuesday. “It’s more energy. More of a family. It’s just awesome.”

The difference between touch and tackle football goes beyond the contact, though. Fewer players were involved on the field in seven-on-seven than normal. This was to prevent the constant close contact shared between offensive and defensive linemen, who became wide receivers on second units and played two quarters per game.

With no linemen on the field, it removed a lot of strategy from the game. Offenses were forced to become fully one-dimensional — run plays were barred from the game.

As a lineman, Balch was in the group perhaps most impacted by the big change. He warmed to the adjustment better than many of his peers. As a wide receiver last season, he caught 40 passes for 511 yards and four touchdowns.

While he acknowledged last season was different, Balch said he still had fun playing touch football.

“Last season had that feel of just sorta hanging out with your buddies,” Balch said. “I always tell people it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was gonna be. I think people really enjoyed it a lot.”

Hartford head coach and offensive coordinator Matt Trombly echoed Balch’s sentiment. Trombly, an assistant coach for the Vermont team, said it’s not hard for experienced players to get right back to tackle football after that long away. He was just glad they had a 2020 season at all.

“At least we got to have something last year,” Trombly said Tuesday. “It gave the kids a chance to get together and play some version of football.”

Anticipation built for the Shrine Game and the week leading up to it for a long time. Dwinell, who’s headed to Norwich University to play football, said he spent much of his summer working out as well as going over the playbook and talking with his coaches.

Balch was just pleased to be part of the game and to help support the Shriners Hospitals for Children.

“I’m really excited to be out here, really excited to be a part of this event,” Balch said. “This event is so much bigger than everyone here. This event is really about the children. I’m honored to be a part of it.”

Two other Upper Valley players will appear on the Vermont team for the Shrine Bowl: Hartford quarterback Cole Jasmin and Windsor High wide receiver Owen Abrahamsen.

Trombly said the experience for these four, as well as everyone involved in the game, is special.

“I think they’re having a great time,” Trombly said. “They’re together all week, from morning till night. They eat together, they’re sleeping in the same dorm rooms, and so they’re developing a special bond. I think that’s going to carry for the rest of their lives. It’s a unique opportunity that most kids don’t get to experience.”

Seth Tow can be contacted at stow@vnews.com.




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