HESPERIA — For Doug Bolles’ fourth season coaching Hesperia football, he decided to go back to something that had worked at prior stops: A midnight practice to open the season.

Football teams statewide opened practice Monday, but there is no MHSAA rule regarding what time Monday teams can practice, so some teams — Montague has done it in the past — open practice at midnight on Monday. It’s something Bolles picked up from current Ferris State assistant coach Dan Rohn, who Bolles worked for at Fremont. Bolles took the idea with him to Baldwin for most of his time there, but hadn’t yet done it at Hesperia until Monday.

“This year, I decided I’m going to switch gears and do something different,” Bolles said. “Everybody said they’d never done it here. The kids got excited and bought into it. The maintenance (team) did a great job on the field. It came out like a Friday night, a first game.”

The team got together for a ‘lock-in’ at the school Sunday evening, practiced from midnight until 2 a.m., then had short practice sessions again Monday morning and Monday afternoon. All told, it wasn’t much more time on the practice field than it would’ve been had the Panthers followed their norm of going from 4 to 8 p.m. on day one, but it set the tone for a season the team is looking forward to.

“The tough part about doing that is, you’re excited then, you come in (after) and nobody is tired,” Bolles said. “They’re still wound (up). You have to try to wind down, and kids weren’t really falling asleep until 4 or 5 o’clock, and we’re up at 7. This morning was a little rough, and this afternoon is a little rough, but we’re getting through it. It was a fun thing to start.”

The Panthers spent most of last season massively undermanned, playing many games with only a couple of subsitutes, if that. Bolles said that should be less of a problem this year with about 20 varsity players, although the JV is now the team short on manpower, with not much more than 11, for now.

The hope is that that will change soon due to a co-op arrangement Hesperia has entered into with Walkerville. Perhaps inspired by Pentwater’s co-op with Mason County Central, the Wildcats will now be offered the opportunity to play football at Hesperia. So far, only one student has made the move, but as the season draws closer, Bolles hopes to add more. He anticipates mostly underclassmen coming from Walkerville, so they would likely boost the JV numbers.

Walkerville, Bolles said, returned the favor by opening up a co-op with Hesperia for soccer. An attempt to reach Wildcats’ principal Joe Conkle, who previously was athletic director at Hesperia, for further information had been unsuccessful at press time.

Keeping the JV going is important; county fans don’t need to be reminded of that given how much trouble Hart and Shelby have had in recent years keeping both a varsity and JV team going at times.

“If we could be able to keep our JV and keep the program going, that’s huge,” Bolles said. “You cut out your JVs, and now you’re playing freshmen on varsity who don’t get a lot of playing time.”

Even with a more healthy manpower situation on the varsity, conditioning will be key for the team. MHSAA rules state the focus of practices the first week is heat acclimatization and conditioning, so teams don’t wear full pads most of the first week, going with only helmets for the first two days.

“This (part) isn’t fun,” Bolles said. “No one likes to condition. I’m a big guy and I hated it. I tell them, I’m not trying to do it to punish you, we just have to get in shape and ready to go.”

Adding some fun to the program has been an off-season focus for Bolles, who noticed lower than expected turnout among some of the youth levels of football in Hesperia. He hopes that by pitching the fun parts of playing football, kids will be more willing to go through the parts, like conditioning, that are less fun. Hence, a midnight lock-in at the school, plus Wednesday’s scheduled team trip to the Silver Lake dunes.

“We want to do some stuff where, it’s not just about varsity and JV,” Bolles said. “I’m trying to keep them all together. We’re supporting each other. I’m trying to do a few different things to instill some fun.”

Hesperia won no games in 2017 and two last year, but the area caught a glimpse of what can happen for a team that sneaks into the playoffs when Holton, a conference rival for Hesperia, was the last team in to the Division 8 playoffs at 5-4 and made a run to the state semifinals. Bolles thinks that with a couple of breaks, the Panthers can get in too. In 2017, Hesperia was on the wrong end of several tough ones en route to the 0-9 record, and Bolles knows those breaks sometimes come back around later.

“We just have to have something good happen,” Bolles said. “Something’s got to go our way, a big play in the fourth quarter. We’re down and we catch someone, turn it and win it...When something turns, the momentum goes and your kids buy into it, that’s the hope.”