Al Melo stood on the recently refurbished black-and-white track at Veterans Memorial Stadium as the Harrison High School football team entered the field March 20.
The Harrison athletic director watched his former team like a proud father viewing their child’s graduation.
Melo rubbed tears from his eyes as players raised the helmets at the conclusion of the national anthem in the season opener against Denver North, while he played the role of spectator.
“It’s the first time I haven’t coached a game in over 20 years,” Melo said.
Melo’s absence is just one of the changes the Panthers had in the season, as they vie for an opportunity at a championship.
Harrison finished 9-2 in 2019 and clinched its third consecutive playoff berth. The Panthers hoped to turn last year’s success into greater achievements, but outside factors hampered their ambitions.
Harrison began its preparations for the year in July at Fox Meadows Middle School as the high school turf and track underwent renovations. Harrison also completed its strength and conditioning at the middle school’s gym.
Then, Panthers football opted to compete in Season C rather than the typical fall schedule to avoid any pandemic setbacks. All this, while head coach Rob Leboeuf took over head coaching responsibilities in his first year at the helm.
Fortunately for Harrison, Leboeuf boasts 22 years of experience including two on Harrison’s sidelines. Leboeuf took on the challenges presented by the pandemic or elsewhere and developed his players bodies and spirits.
Prior to knowing if they would play football this year, Leboeuf said he would prepare his team for whatever situation state athletic authorities presented.
“I don’t care if you tell us we’re playing on concrete— you tell us who we’re playing, and we’ll be ready to play on concrete,” Leboeuf said. “We’re going to play whoever you put in front of us and beat them — or die trying.”
Harrison exuded that intensity during their game against then No. 4 Denver North in them season opener.
The contest, originally slated to occur at Denver North, was moved to Harrison following a snowstorm in Denver. It was a clinic on what good coaches expected from good players.
In the first half Harrison built a 40-0 lead and initiated the mercy rule — which occurs when a team leads by 40 or more at any point. The rule directs the timekeeper to keep the clock running with no stoppages in order for time to run out more quickly. Harrison eventually won 40-9.
Harrison allowed Denver North in the red zone just twice in the game. The second instance occurred in the final minute of the contest after Leboeuf pulled his starters to give younger players varsity playing time.
In the following two games, Harrison allowed just 3 points; none against rival Sierra, a game which ended at halftime due to injuries on the Stallions’ end; and a 33-3 victory against Aurora Central in the Panthers’ first road game.
The Panthers’ fourth opponent, Gateway High School, tested their might and ended Harrison’s string of blowout victories.
Harrison built a 14-6 lead at halftime and during the break coaches pressed players about improving their defense and limiting mistakes.
While the Olympians quarterback Erick Covington scored two more touchdowns, Harrison won 34-18 — a double-digit victory against one of their strongest opponents.
“That game was a hard-fought win; we had to scrap to get that,” said Panthers senior Kahli Dotison. “It’s always great to come out with a victory like that.”
Postgame, the locker room resembled the scene in ‘Remember the Titans’ with coach Herman Boone preaching perfection to his athletes.
Players listened intently as coaches explained where to improve on defense and how to make those adjustments.
“This year has been kind of like a rollercoaster,” said quarterback Jaseim Mitchell. “Some things are unpredictable, but we go into every week with the expectation to win.”
Harrison earned its first playoff win in school history in 2018, a 34-28 victory over Holy Family. Heading into the postseason players hope to cement that legacy with more history this year.
“I need that ring — ring me,” Dotison said. “We’ve been talking about this since 2019, we’ve been waiting on this for a long time and when the time comes, we’ll be ready.”