FORT MILL -- Rusty Jester was right at home Monday afternoon, leading his football team through summer workouts in Fort Mill High School's gym and weight room.
But it wasn't like old times. It was out of necessity.
Jester is no longer the football coach at Fort Mill. After one season -- leading the Yellow Jackets to third place in Region 3-AAAA, ahead of Northwestern and Rock Hill -- Jester left to become coach at Nation Ford.
Fort Mill's new high school opens in August and a lot of work needs to be finished. Jester said he doesn't even have keys yet and the weight room is empty.
The Falcons loosen up in Fort Mill's gym, then hit the Yellow Jackets' weight room. On days the players run, the team meets at Springfield Middle School next door to Nation Ford.
"All we have is a bag of footballs -- 10 balls, and I borrowed the bag from Fort Mill -- and 20 helmets that were pre-shipped to us,'' Jester said. "We checked into getting equipment shipped to us in waves, but found out the shipping charges for that were too much.
"We're expecting everything to get here on July 14. That includes all of our equipment, including what will go in our weight room. We hope to have a stadium by our third year. We'll use Fort Mill's until then, but I don't see that as a neutral site for us, especially when we play them.''
The countdown has started. Nation Ford plays the first of a 10-game independent schedule Aug. 17 at Forestview in Gastonia, N.C. The game that's drawing the most attention, though, is the meeting with Fort Mill on Sept. 14.
Jester said players from both schools are ribbing each other about the showdown.
"That's all they talk about when they have idle time,'' Jester said. "It's like it's the only game either team wants to win. Because we're new and don't have any seniors this year, we're basically a junior varsity team.
"We'll struggle at times, but we'll get better and we'll work hard. In a couple of years, our rivalry with Fort Mill will be like the ones between Rock Hill and Northwestern and York and Clover.''
Jester is two coaches short and his staff includes a couple of volunteers. He plans to field a varsity and JV team from the 75 players who have signed up and are attending workouts.
The Falcons have 31 players who were on Fort Mill's JV team last year and six who played on the varsity. Dee Truesdale started in the Yellow Jackets' secondary most of the year.
"I grew up in Fort Mill and always wanted to be a Yellow Jacket,'' Truesdale said. "But it's not going to be tough switching and being a Falcon. We get to start a new tradition. The good thing is coach Jester is coming with us.''
The player who had the biggest hopes of playing for the Yellow Jackets is Lance Jacobs. His dad, Jesse, was an outstanding football and baseball player at Fort Mill.
Jacobs' grandfather, Jesse Sr., is one of Nation Ford's volunteer coaches (offensive line), so the transition has not been as tough as it could have been.
"My granddad and coach Jester became good friends last year, so he was happy to help coach us,'' said Jacobs, a safety/tailback like his dad. "At first, my dad was in shock.
"It will be odd not wearing a Fort Mill uniform and not having a stadium. But it will all work out. I can build my own reputation. My granddad coached five of us since we were in the second grade, so that makes it easier.''
Those three are Jacobs, Truesdale and Tony Hall, all juniors.
Hall saw some varsity action last season, but primarily played on the JV team as its featured tailback. He's excited about playing for a new school, but has reservations.
"Playing an independent schedule is all right with me, but I hate it that we'll not get to go to the playoffs,'' Hall said. "We'll do our best, win or lose. This is our first year, so we'll use it to get us ready for the second, when we'll line up against some of the best teams in the state.''
Nation Ford was approved to join Region 3-AAAA, which includes Clover, Fort Mill, Lancaster, Northwestern, Rock Hill, South Pointe and York. The Falcons will play region schedules and will be eligible for the playoffs in the other sports.
Next year, the Falcons will play a region schedule in football.
"This is going to be a great experience for all of us,'' said Steven Cox, a junior linebacker/fullback. "It's going to be fun, especially when we play Fort Mill. Those guys are still our friends, but for at least two hours we're going to hate each other when we play.''
The newness is just beginning, and it's tough to find any players who have been inside Nation Ford. So when they finally get a chance to go inside the school -- hopefully before classes start -- it will be their first steps into history.
Addison Berry, a junior linebacker/offensive lineman, said he's driven past the school several times and is looking forward to going inside.
"It's not a big deal for us to work out at Fort Mill because most of us were here last year,'' Berry said. "But it will be different and an exciting experience when we get into our new school, and we are looking forward to starting the rivalry with Fort Mill.''
Jester has talked to his players about what lies ahead. He went to high school at Charlotte's Independence, was in the first class when it opened in 1966 and spent four years there.
The Falcons are beginning a journey similar to the road South Pointe took last season, its first playing varsity football.
Everything will be new and the team will be under the microscope, but Jester told his kids it's more than that.
"I told them that everything they do this year will be history ... first win, first touchdown, first completed pass, first interception and so on,'' Jester said. "The firsts will be in our record book forever, things other players will do but can't be the first to do it.
"I know how it is because I can look back with pride at the first year at Independence and where the program has gone since I was there. I tell my kids we can do the same thing here, but it will take hard work to get there.''
To view video highlights of Nation Ford football practice, go to heraldonline.com this afternoon.