GARDEN PLAIN — At 11:40 p.m. Sunday night, 20 minutes before Garden Plain’s opening football practice of the 2015 season, longtime Owls fan Mike Ast introduced himself to first-year coach Ken Dusenbury.
As Dusenbury chatted with Ast, other fans arrived and some joked with Dusenbury that they’d be there, alongside the fence during games, to offer analysis.
Dusenbury, who is in his first head coaching position after 20 years as an assistant, laughed and said he just might take them up on it. Then he moved off to wrap up final details before practice, which began at 12:03 a.m.
“This is why you want a job like Garden Plain because they care,” Dusenbury said an hour later after working with offensive linemen. “(The fans) are very knowledgeable, and they have high expectations.… It’s almost 1 a.m. and we still have about as many as we had when we started — and they’re watching a bunch of drills.”
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Dusenbury, who had never run a midnight practice before, kept the tradition alive because the seniors asked him to. He worked with his assistants to plan a schedule that was similar to any other first practice — loaded with drills, teaching and conditioning.
Although he failed to get a nap in before practice, Dusenbury, 45, experienced no waves of apprehension in the days leading up to practice. After all, he has had two decades worth of first practices.
He coached high school football for 20 years around Kansas at Tribune, Deerfield, Chaparral, Clearwater and, for the past nine seasons, at Andover — always as an assistant.
He was happy in that role, and it gave him time to focus on his own three sons, who are 24, 23 and 18.
“In 22 years, I’ve interviewed for two other head positions,” Dusenbury said. “I’ve been waiting on my own kids to grow up. I know that being a head coach is kind of all-consuming.”
The Garden Plain job opened in the spring after third-year coach Brad McCormick was named the principal at Scott City. Dusenbury wasn’t about to ignore this opening.
“It’s always been one of those programs that has been good for decades,” said Dusenbury, who will teach P.E. “It will continue to be good. I’ve always wanted to be in a place where the school was important, and the community supported the school and the activities.
“That’s kind of always been the feeling with Garden Plain. There’s the expectation level, and that’s what you want as a coach.”
The Owls have won 133 games in the past 15 seasons, winning the 3A title in 2007. Garden Plain was 8-10 in the past two seasons.
There was no question with Andover coach Mike Lee that Dusenbury, who he considered a vital voice on his staff, was ready to take over his own program.
“It was good to hear his thoughts, whether on the weight room, a particular kid, grades, an upcoming opponent, what we would do in practice that day,” Lee said. “He was a nice balancer.”
Lee will miss Dusenbury’s presence with the Trojans, but he’s thrilled for his friend.
The season opener on Sept. 4 “will be like Game 1, and your younger brother is coaching Game 1,” Lee said. “Throughout the night, I know I’ll be thinking, ‘I wonder what is going on with Garden Plain and Cheney.’”
While the Garden Plain athletes are new to Dusenbury hasn’t changed how he has always worked to connect with players.
“I always look at myself as a teacher. It’s one of my strengths as an assistant, to be able to teach the game,” he said. “I’m not a rah-rah guy.
“I use anything I can to make a point. Whether it’s a metaphor or sarcasm or humor. It will be interesting to see it translate into a head coach.”
Dusenbury established connections during weight-lifting sessions at 6:30 a.m. in the summer. After weights, he met with seniors over chocolate milk and donuts or muffins.
“He’s been great,” senior quarterback Alex Becker said. “Just getting to know us in the weight room. Having our team lift together. He brought us all together.”
Garden Plain athletic director Lee Gillen added: “I’m excited about him. I think he’s a quality, quality act.”
There have been moments where Dusenbury has had to remind himself that he’s the head coach.
“You have all these ideas as an assistant of what you would do,” he said. “What I’ve realized through the summer and tell myself is I have to make the decisions.”
“There’s a couple moments in meetings, ‘what do you think?’ There’s a pause, and it’s ‘oh, wait, they’re waiting for me to make that decision.’”
But as Dusenbury wrapped up the initial practice at midfield at 1:55 a.m., by telling his team great job and to give him a good breakdown, there was no doubt this was his team.