Columbus High School Homecoming is on Saturday night, and Joey Braasch doesn’t have a date.
Ask him and he’ll tell you that’s OK. He’d rather do his dancing on the way to the end zone 24 hours earlier in the Discoverers’ Week 4 contest with the Fremont Tigers.
Braasch, the starting running back for a 1-2 CHS football team, has had a whirlwind of a ride since emerging as a potential superstar two weeks ago. The junior scored four touchdowns in the win over North Platte, including a kickoff return in which he initially dropped the kick before quickly finding the ball on the turf then sprinting past defenders.
He also went 53 yards on Columbus’ second snap of the game and made a run for the ages to cap the win in the fourth quarter, eluding tacklers at the sideline and then carrying defenders into the end zone.
Last week, he amassed 70 yards on 12 carries and a score in the 35-14 loss at Elkhorn. On special teams, he was no longer a mystery to opposing teams. The Antlers chose to kick off short rather than give Braasch an opportunity.
And it’s not just on the field where he’s suddenly earned a measure of respect.
Make plays like he has recently, and the community begins to take notice as well.
“A lot more people have recognized me, a lot of older people who read the paper. I’ve had a couple of people come up to me at the grocery store and places like that and ask if I’m that No. 23 Braasch kid,” he said Wednesday after practice. “It’s a pretty good feeling knowing that people outside of my friend group are starting to get to know me.”
His sudden arrival on a team with few returning starters has required an adjustment period.
Braasch is still recovering from a hamstring pull as a sophomore that lingered into summer and, at times, still pops up now and then. It’s part of the reason he wasn’t sure what to expect out of himself when fall camp began and he earned the starting running back position.
Another reason is a humble approach to his own abilities.
After the win over North Platte that included 146 rushing yards, coach Craig Williams mentioned he and the CHS staff have made a concerted effort to try and help Braasch understand just what's in his skill set.
Though that game provided some proof, he’s still somewhat hesitant to anoint himself the next great Discoverer.
“A lot of the time, I have some mental errors, just some small things here and there,” he said. “Coach Williams, or other coaches on the staff, let me know, ‘It’s all right. It’s all up in your head. Just fix it. It’s a quick fix. You’re good. You’re good.’
The situation also isn’t ideal for a player with Braasch’s modest outlook.
Only one skill player from 2017 with any real experience returns in the backfield. CHS brings back a few more up front, but it’s definitely a group with names Columbus fans may not be familiar with.
Whoever was going to step into that void was likely to become an overnight sensation.
Additionally, the program is in the midst of transition. The Discoverers have had tremendous success lately, qualifying for the Class B playoffs each of the last two years. But when the NSAA restructured its classifications earlier this year, CHS was moved back up to Class A.
The move was met by some in the community with low expectations.
Naturally, when Braasch broke out against North Platte, he inspired hope. Fair or not, now he carries hope as much as he carries the ball on Friday nights.
“It gets stressful at times,” he said. “You have so many people who know you and so many people who want you to do well, that if you have an off night you have all these opinions of you. It can kind of become a burden.”
That burden surfaced in the moments before the game at Elkhorn. Braasch said his nerves were as tight as ever. They began to subside once he scored and took a few handoffs.
“I was not feeling the greatest that game. Once I scored the first touchdown, I started to feel a little bit better,” Braash said. “As soon as I started scoring and started running, my confidence went up.”
And make no mistake about it, though he might be a reluctant superstar, Braasch is buying into his coaches’ opinions and beginning to embrace being the face of Columbus football.
He’s focused more on what he eats ever since cramps were a major factor in the opening game, tries to put together more “efficient” workouts and “locks it down” during his time in the weight room.
Though he’s had some success on the track as well, making football a part of his future is becoming more of a reality.
“College is expensive. Whether it’s football or track, I’m hoping I can get something that can help pay for college,” he said. “I’d say there’s definitely a lot for me to go get out there. I’d say my confidence has gone up significantly.”
He’ll take that confidence to Friday against a 2-1 Fremont team with a 56-13 win over Benson and a 27-9 victory over North Platte in the past two weeks go to with a 22-0 loss in Week 1 against Lincoln Northeast.
“I know Fremont is a great team. All categories, they’re pretty good,” Braasch said. “But I know with my team, with our athletes and the things we’ve been doing to prepare this week, we have a really good chance of coming out on top.”
The night after, he’ll be going solo to the dance.
“As of right now, I’m unemployed. I’m just a student-athlete without any extra money,” he said.
Regardless, Braasch may be the determining factor in whether or not that occasion, and certainly whether or not the night before, is an enjoyable one for Discoverer fans.
“Coach always says (Homecoming) is about the football game. We set the tone. If you win, everyone’s happy,” Braasch said. “I really believe that football is a team sport. One man can’t do it all, but people need to know their roles. Being a playmaker is a role that has sort of emerged for me. Whether I have a one-touchdown night or a four-touchdown night, I feel like I need to do everything to the max.”
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor for The Columbus Telegram. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org