There’s an increased sense of excitement for the Liberty Prep Sports Academy football team that recently embarked on the first year and season as a post-graduate/junior college program in Marion.
More than 40 kids representing 13 states arrived in town in early August to begin their individual journey’s along an alternative path that hopefully leads to playing football at a four-year university.
The Freedmen opened their season with a 14-6 win at Detroit Community College on Aug. 29, now LPSA makes its home debut against Dohn Prep at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Marion High School’s Dick Lootens Stadium.
Tailgating starts at 5:30 p.m. and admission to all four of LPSA’s home contests during this inaugural season is $6. Kids 5-and-under will be admitted free.
LPSA founder and head coach Paul Funches was direct about what he’s most looking forward to on Saturday night.
“Being able to present our guys to the community,” he said from his office in the REAL Community Church Tuesday afternoon. “We really, really want to be a team of the community to where the average person around Marion knows our guys and can relate to our players and our program.
“That’s the biggest thing that really excites me,” Funches continued. “A home game, hopefully we can get tons of people to come out and support and hopefully we can put a good product on the field and show that Juco football, post-grad football is possible in Grant County.”
Funches said he was met with a good deal of skepticism as he started presenting the idea for LPSA to different people, but his vision and mission for providing an alternative opportunity for kids to get a college education and continue playing football has come to life.
“I was told in the early parts of this that I wouldn’t get 15 kids because nobody would want to come to Marion,” Funches shared. “One, that nobody understood the concept and nobody would want to come to a small town in north central Indiana.
“Here we are 1-0 right now, heading into our first home game, we’ve got some kids that can really play some football and will go on to some four-year schools and be successful.”
Funches also admitted that nothing about the process has been easy, particularly when his players started arriving in Marion to meet for the first time prior to the start of training camp and classes.
Those first collective meetings allowed Funches and his assistant coaches to begin to learn about the personalities of the players and how well they might fit together on the field.
“The good thing is, they all get along for the most part. I think we’ve done a pretty good job recruiting as far as getting kids that are kinda like-minded as far as knowing what they’re here for,” Funches said. “On the flip side of that is they’re young kids, 18, 19, 20-year old kids, young men away from home so they’re going to do things that most college kids do.”
Funches said a top priority of LPSA’s mission is helping the players understand that football is only part of the reason they were recruited to come to Marion.
“We have to get them to understand that you’re here because you are trying to get to a four-year program and we’ve got to fix those things that would keep you out of a four year-program,” Funches said. “That’s the ministry side of it, the mentoring side of it.
“The way you’re handling situations, the thought process, the way you’re going about things is not going to help you get where you want to be,” he added. “We’ve got to figure out how to fix it now so it’s not going to be an issue once you step foot on that (four-year) campus. Those programs are going to have you on a much shorter leash and get rid of you with no problems. It’s trying to get them to understand that and to understand this is serious. This is for real and we’re trying to get you to that next level.”
On the field Funches doubles as the Freedmen’s head coach and defensive coordinator. He said the product fans can expect to see from LPSA on Saturday is a fast, aggressive defensive unit that flies around the field making plays.
LPSA’s offense has been a little slower to develop, which is no real surprise since offensive coordinator Derrick Moore has only had a month or so to work with the players. However, Funches said that side of the ball is also coming along nicely.
Funches is most happy about a particular aspect he sees from the Freedmen on the field everyday, and it has nothing at all to do with coaching.
“We’ve got a group of kids that are super-talented for one, but they work really hard,” he said. “When it comes down to the football part, they are locked in. When it’s time to buckle down, focus up and get down to business, they’re all the way locked in.
“It’s just making sure they can apply that to everything that they do,” Funches continued. “Our practices, they’re college football practices. We’re flying around, we’re in and out of sessions so that’s been really good.”
Liberty Prep will play home games against Vision Academy on Sept. 18 at 7:30 p.m., SFF CC on Sept. 25 at 3:30 p.m. and against Haywood Prep on Oct. 10 at 3:30 p.m. The Freedmen will also play games at Franklin College (Oct. 3), Rose-Hulman (Oct. 17) and Hanover College (Oct. 24).
Funches hopes this first year of Liberty Prep football will help broaden the connection between his mission and the Marion/Grant County community.
“We’ve gotten a great response from people. Our guys when they’re out in the community and people interacted with them, of course everything gets back to me, and its been all positive,” Funches said. “Various individuals in the community have reached out to ask how they can help here and there. Still want to try and get connected with some of the businesses in the community, connect and find ways that our players can be involved.
“We plan on being here for the foreseeable future,” he added. “We want people when they hear Marion to think Liberty Prep is there. … I feel really good where we are with our relationship with Marion and people being excited about the program.”