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story.lead_photo.caption North Callaway running back Trevor Ray tries to distance himself from South Callaway linebacker Kyle Dickinson during a Week 2 game in Mokane. Photo by Amy Craghead/Special to the Fulton Sun

KINGDOM CITY — The North Callaway Thunderbirds, still grieving a lost teammate, are set to return to the business of football.

North Callaway gets back on the playing field tonight for the first time in two weeks when it travels to Vandalia for an Eastern Missouri Conference game against the Van-Far Indians. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.

North Callaway (1-1, 1-1 EMO) hasn't played since Sept. 4 in a 21-6 loss at South Callaway in the annual Callaway Cup rivalry game in Mokane. The Thunderbirds canceled their scheduled home game last week against EMO foe Clopton/Elsberry after a North Callaway player passed away earlier that day.

Thunderbirds coach Don Boulware, his coaching staff and players were still trying to come to terms with the death earlier in the week. Even before playing tonight, they had the deceased player's visitation to attend Wednesday and the funeral to follow Thursday.

The squad released helium balloons in memory of the player after Monday night's junior varsity home game.

"It's surreal, because I don't know if it's really hit me that he's dead," a somber Boulware said Tuesday afternoon. "When we go to the funeral and see him in the casket, then it'll kind of hit you.

"I've been to enough funerals, you know when it really hits you at a funeral? When they close that casket and you're not going to see them again."

While remembering their deceased teammate, Boulware believes the Thunderbirds can find comfort in eventually returning to their routine.

"You do all those things, you show respect, but at some point you have to move on, even if it's your wife or your mom or dad," Boulware said. "At some point, life goes on and you'll always miss them and it's always going to hurt a little, but it hurts a little less with each passing day that it's in the rearview mirror.

"Because you get used to the fact that they're gone and you become more accepting of that. Other things in your life go on and you have to deal with those. The distraction of work, or in this case football, can actually be a healthy part of the healing process, because you're not just laying around fretting about it."

Focusing on the fact that football will be played tonight, North Callaway will face a Van-Far squad that only started its season last weekend after serving a mandated quarantine. The Indians dropped a low-scoring affair at Mark Twain in an 8-6 EMO loss last Saturday night.

Van-Far — which was 1-9 in 2019 — has made a switch in offensive philosophies this season, according to Boulware, scrapping the wide-open spread in favor of the run-based Wing-T.

"We're expecting a team that's better than last year, a team that's probably going to improve a lot from Week 1 to Week 2," Boulware said. "Not only is it their second game, but now they've got a few practices under their belt.

"They might come out and throw something at us that we're not even aware of. We have to limit big plays and just wrapping up and tackling."

On the defensive side, Boulware expects the Indians to line up in either 4-2 or 4-4 schemes.

The Thunderbirds will look to be more productive on offense tonight after managing only one score — a 1-yard touchdown run by junior running back Trevor Ray — in the loss to South Callaway.

North Callaway sophomore quarterback Braydn O'Neal was intercepted twice in the end zone and the Thunderbirds also turned the ball over once on downs inside the Bulldogs' 10-yard line.

"We have to go out there (tonight) with the mindset that we can't be sloppy and squander scoring chances, and make turnovers and mistakes that set them up," Boulware said.

Given the circumstances of the past week, it's understandable Boulware doesn't have a clear idea what his team's emotional state will be when it takes the field tonight.

"Are our minds going to be focused or are they going to be elsewhere?" Boulware said.

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