It was toward the end of February when Denmark hired Mike Palmieri to be its next football coach.
Palmieri would be tasked with replacing Terry Crowder, who coached the Danes in their first two seasons, even leading Denmark to the playoffs for the first time in 2019.
On top of that, the Danes were scheduled to make the jump from Class 4A to Class 7A, the highest classification in the state.
Palmieri had just met his players when the COVID-19 pandemic began breaking out, scrapping spring practice for the Danes and putting summer workouts – as well as the 2020 season – in jeopardy.
Then, shortly after the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) allowed summer workouts to resume in June, Denmark halted practice because of a player who tested positive for the virus.
The stop-and-go nature of this offseason is anything but normal, but Palmieri is impressed with how his players handled it.
“We’re pretty good, you know. I like where we’re at,” Palmieri said. “I was surprised at the work ethic, and how these kids want to work and they want to be coached. We’re excited about it. We’ve got a tough task ahead of us, jumping from a 4A schedule to a 7A schedule, but we’re confident.”
The cupboard at Denmark is hardly bare for Palmieri, who won three state championships at Mallard Creek (N.C.).
Senior quarterback Aaron McLaughlin, previously an Auburn commit, flipped to North Carolina State in the offseason, while running back Devin duCille announced his commitment to Furman.
McLaughlin injured his shoulder this summer, but the late start to the 2020 season could benefit the four-star recruit.
Palmieri mentioned quarterbacks Jack Tomlinson and Daniel Fichtner as a couple of backups to McLaughlin, who completed 134 of 220 passes for 1,997 and 17 touchdowns last year.
Perhaps the Danes’ greatest strength on offense is its running backs, a group that features duCille, senior Zach Ogbogu and sophomore Dee Crayton.
Ogbogu scored eight touchdowns last year and averaged more than eight yards per carry (49 carries, 403 yards), while adding two touchdowns as a junior.
duCille led the Danes in rushing in 2018 but missed last season after injuring his knee in the first game of the year.
“I’m just really starting to get to know these guys, but he’s impressed me in just the way he comes to work every day,” Palmieri said of duCille. “He comes to work and you don’t hear him. He’s just leading by example. Devin’s a good leader in what we’re trying build in that locker room.”
The departure of Auburn enrollee Ze’Vian Capers leaves a hole at wide receiver, one Palmieri expects seniors Azari Brown, Teddy Davenport and Casey Gunn will help fill.
“Our receiving corps is pretty talented. We’ve got a good mixture,” Palmieri said. “We’ve got some young kids like Azari Brown, and we’ve got some kids like Teddy Davenport and Casey Gunn. We have kids like that, but we’re still trying to figure out what they can and cannot do. This is a process trying to build.”
^Sept. 3 vs. Greater Atlanta Christian 5:30 p.m.
Sept. 9 at Allatoona 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 17 vs. Shiloh 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 25 vs. Lanier 7:30 p.m.
*Oct. 2 at North Forsyth 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 9 BYE
*Oct. 16 vs. Forsyth Central 7:30 p.m.
*Oct. 23 at Lambert 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 30 BYE
*Nov. 6 vs. South Forsyth 7:30 p.m.
*Nov. 13 vs. Gainesville 7:30 p.m.
*Nov. 20 at West Forsyth 7:30 p.m.
^Corky Kell Classic at Dacula High School
*Denotes Region 6-7A contest
7-3 overall, 4-2 Region 7-4A
W — Denmark 41, Cherokee Bluff 0
W — Denmark 63, North Springs 63
W — Denmark 38, Dawson County 24
W — Denmark 58, Chestatee 0
W — Denmark 49, West Hall 0
L — Blessed Trinity 20, Denmark 19
L — Marist 37, Denmark 14
W — Denmark 28, White County 21
W — Denmark 34, Flowery Branch 14
L — Sandy Creek 42, Denmark 7
First varsity season: 2018
Playoff appearances: 1 (2019)
Region titles: 0
State titles: 0
At Denmark: 0-0, first season
Overall: 163-40, 16th season
Senior Will Purdy (6-foot-2, 265 pounds) will captain an offensive line that must replace Noah Mallard, as well as Dayne Shor, a four-star recruit who transferred to IMG Academy in Florida.
On defense, senior defensive back Justin Bradford returns after tying for the county lead in interceptions (5) as a junior. Bradford committed in May to play at Troy University.
The Danes must replace a trio of dynamic linebackers in CJ Ford (Elon), Nick Carozza (Austin Peay) and Zach Burchfield.
Senior Harrison Halder offers the most experience at the position after leading the team in tackles for loss (14) and sacks (6) last season.
Originally slated for Class 6A, Denmark will almost assuredly be one of the smallest schools in the 7A classification this year. But Palmieri, who compiled a 139-34 record in 13 seasons at a Mallard Creek school that opened in 2007, knows this season is only the first step.
“We have a lot of options,” Palmieri said. “We’re only as good as our twos and threes when you’re making these runs and trying to build a program. So, a lot of these kids are going to play for Denmark this year.”