A Young Saline Football Team Returns to the Gridiron As Practice Begins

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The Saline Hornets returned to the gridiron Monday morning as fall sports practices began at Saline High School.

After practice, The Saline Post caught up to head coach Joe Palka, who begins his 11th season at the helm of the program.

It doesn't seem to matter how many years you coach football, there's always excitement about the opening practice.

"It's the best part of everything we do, with the staff and the great group of kids. It keeps you young and keeps you energized," Palka said. "There's really nothing like it. It's just great to be out."

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This is Palka's 11th opening practice with Saline football. First and foremost, the first thing he wants to see is all the players he expected to see.

After that, he wants to see an eager and enthusiastic group.

"You want to see everyone with a sense of urgency and a sense of purpose. You want to see it look sharp and look organized. And you want to see kids giving effort," Palka said. "They're going to make mistakes, but if they give effort, that's what you're looking for to set the tone."

Palka said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the way the team seemed to pick up where it left off in the recent camp.

Expectations are always high for the Hornets. The Hornets were undefeated in the regular season last year. They've won eight straight SEC Red titles and haven't lost a regular-season game in the conference since 2013.

Palka's Hornets have made the playoffs 10 straight years.

On top of that, Saline junior QB CJ Carr, who recently committed to Notre Dame, is one of the most highly recruited players in Michigan High School football.

But in high school football, you're rebuilding every year. And the Hornets have a lot of work to do.

"I think everybody's going to think we have 22 CJs, and that's not the case. It's a very young team and we really only return, in total, four starters," Palka said.

Carr and his favorite target, receiver Roman Laurio, are well known to Hornet football fans. RB Ryan Niethammer gained experience before an injury last year. Another player returning from injury is 6'5 TE Dylan Mesman, who looked like he might be on his way to a monster year before he was hurt.

On defense, linebacker Sullivan Mills and safety Garrett Baldwin have the most experience.

"We've got 4 or 5 guys with the reps. Everyone else is going to be brand new," Palka said. "I like where we are at with the skilled positions. I think we're going to be pretty good in the secondary."

But on the lines, the Hornets are inexperienced.

"Where I'm most concerned is the offensive and defensive lines. It was always a small class. So a lot of our linemen are younger guys who are going to get opportunities on varsity," Palka said.

Around the SEC Red, Palka is looking at a talented senior class at Huron and Dexter, and, he said, Bedford and Monroe are always tough.

"I think the SEC Red is a good football conference, especially with the addition of Lincoln and Dexter and how good Huron has become," Palka said.

The football season officially begins Aug. 25 when the Hornets host Hudsonville. The kickoff is at 7 p.m.

There are photos from the practice below.

For more photos - visit our Smugmug gallery.

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