The McLean County High School football team hopes to turn the corner with a new season right around the corner. There's stiff competition for the kicking position right now and it's coming from an unlikely place.
In full pads and under the sweltering August sun, high school football practice is where boys become men. Zack Wagner, McLean County's new head coach, is trying to learn all of their names.
"We have a good core group of guys," Wagner said. "Of course we're a little thin. We're a small 2A school."
When a coach calls his players 'ladies,' it's usually not a term of endearment. But for Juanita Johnson, it's a statement of fact.
"I'm kicking for the football team," Johnson said as she couldn't control her laughter. Johnson is a junior at McLean County High School. "Sorry, I tend to laugh a lot."
"It gets animated out here to say the least," Wagner said.
Heading into the season with a thin roster, Coach Wagner and his staff decided to try something different, just for kicks. Besides, the team hasn't won a single game in the last three seasons.
"I was a little leery if they would like it or not," Wagner said. "But they've been excited."
Being a kicker can be the loneliest position in sports but not here, not for the McLean County Cougars. Juanita Johnson, sophomore Kirstin Ayer, sophomore Emily Burden and senior Morgan Scott are all vying to be the football team's next kicker.
All four of them play on the girl's soccer team.
"One of the [football] coaches came up and asked if anyone of us wanted to kick because the boys couldn't," Ayer said.
"My dad's reaction, he told me he always wanted a son so he thought it was awesome," Johnson said again fought back laughter. "My dad calls me Juan now instead of Juanita."
Their helmets wobble, their pony tails dangle and their shoulder pads don't feel right. These four Lady Cougars are used to wearing shin guards. Now, their shins are the only places their football pads don't protect.
"I accidentally put my pants on backwards," Burden said. "It feels like [the shoulder pads are] holding me down because I'm used to not wearing any pads. It's really hot. I give it to these guys."
"Not only are they fully ready for full-pad football now, but they also have a Halloween costume come October," Wagner said. "They go to soccer practice or football practice first and then they go to another practice. We don't look at them as girls, they're athletes."
Under the summer sun, surrounded by cornstalks, the McLean County High School practice field is where boys become men.
It's also where girls become teammates.
McLean County's first game is August 23rd at Ballard Memorial High School.
Reporter: Jordan Vandenberge
Photojournalist: Brian Cissell