I have three young daughters and if they turn out like Mia, I’ll feel good because it will mean the good Lord blessed me.John Ford, Rebels head football coach
By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD — Two weeks ago, Effingham County’s football team competed in a padded camp and there’s still some talk about Mia Bernacki’s facemask-to-facemask showdown against Thomasville’s middle linebacker.
Like a seasoned politician, Bernacki will neither confirm nor deny the account, but ....
“I’m never afraid to punch someone in the mouth. I might be a girl but if you try to treat me like one, you’ll be in for a nasty surprise,” she said.
Bernacki is the girl next door who just happens to wrestle and play football. She’s a Rebel senior without a cause because, she says, she’s not trying to prove anything.
She played mostly on ECHS’ junior varsity football team last season and, in the wrestling season, competed against predominantly boys. At state, with a chance to wrestle girls, she advanced to the finals of the 197-pound weight class before losing by a point to Jackson County’s Lilly Chavis.
“Mia is of the highest character. Her demeanor is awesome. She’s low maintenance and just comes out and works,” Rebels football coach John Ford said. “She doesn’t expect anything made special for her. I have three young daughters and if they turn out like Mia, I’ll feel good because it will mean the good Lord blessed me.”
Bernacki said her family and the community have always been supportive.
At 5-foot-10, she was blessed with size and strength and played on the offensive line in recreation football. She has no brothers but two older sisters, both shorter, who did not share her love for contact sports. One sister played soccer and ran track in middle school. The other sister was in the band.
“My family has always encouraged me and they’ve been proud of me,” Bernacki said. “Moving down here (from upstate New York) I expected people to be against the idea of me wrestling and playing football. But I’ve gotten nothing but support and even if they don’t do the same things as I do, knowing I have that support means everything.”
Rebels wrestling coach Nico Guggino said Bernacki earned respect from her teammates.
“She never wanted to be treated differently. Nobody babies her,” Guggino said. “The guys don’t go easy on her because that wouldn’t be respecting her as an athlete.”
Recently, Bernacki and five ECHS teammates worked out at the prestigious Jeff Jordan Wrestling Camp in Ohio.
Bernacki said she worked on attempting takedowns — a part of her game that was sorely missing in the final moments of the state championship match.
“I had always worried about taking a shot (making the first move for a takedown) and all the things that can go wrong,” Bernacki said. “I lost because I couldn’t get past that fear so I went to Ohio with the goal thinking, ‘it doesn’t matter how bad the shot was, no matter if I was successful or not,’ I was going to take shot after shot until I was comfortable.”
“I think she definitely got better,” Guggino said. “Hopefully, we can get her one more win at the end of the season.”
On the football team, Bernacki, no longer bigger than most of the guys, moved one spot over from offensive tackle to tight end.
"There was a time when I was bigger than all the kids, but they caught up so I needed to find somewhere I wouldn’t get sat on and crushed," she said.
But Bernacki’s not afraid to mix things up on the inside.
“If someone doesn’t think our team is tough because we have a girl on the team, then they don’t know Mia,” Ford said.