When the Prague Black Panthers fell to the Danube Dragons in a 21-14 loss last week, they experienced much the same feelings as any other team after a hard-fought defeat. There was disappointment, frustration, and determination, but one more unexpected emotion underneath it all.
It was a feeling that had been washing over the team since they crossed the Austrian border for the first time in 2021 earlier that day.
It still didn’t feel real until just last week when we finally crossed the Austrian border to play Danube,” head coach Taylor Breitzman said of being able to play their first game of the season. There was a big sigh of relief on our bus….like ‘finally!’
While winning was the goal for the Black Panthers, just getting on the field could be considered an accomplishment. Coming from the Czech Republic, Prague is the only team currently playing in a country other than their own and while the COVID-19 pandemic has affected sports teams everywhere, they’ve been presented hurdles like few others.
It has been a challenge because the restrictions were completely different between the two countries. In Czechia, there was a late lockdown put in place right at the time we were supposed to start camp. So while we were in lockdown, in Austria they were having full team practices,” Breitzman explains.
There was nothing we could do except wait and make sure we followed our country’s protocols to the fullest.
Being sequestered at home while opponents got ready caused the cancellation of Prague’s season opener and a whole new schedule being drawn up. That wasn’t quite the return to Europe Breitzman was hoping for after seven years away.
The Central Washington product first coached the club from 2013 to 2014, winning two Czech national titled before returning to the United States to become head coach of the College of the Redwoods junior college program.
He broke into the NCAA as an assistant for the South Dakota School of Mines and won the AFCA’s National Assistant Coach of the Year award in 2017, but having a wife from the Czech Republic meant a return to Europe was always a possibility. The couple now has a two-year-old son and a desire to immerse him in the Czech language and culture prompted the decision to come back to the club.
One thing led to another and it just fell into place for us,” Breitzman says. “We decided it was now or never.
The pandemic clearly wasn’t a fan of the coach’s timing, but he went to work anyway. Despite being unable to gather, Breitzman’s staff did an incredible job managing the unexpected and getting players ready to go from afar.
Our coaches did an excellent job with keeping our guys engaged with Zoom meetings and organizing small group trainings for specific positions,” he says. “Because of our Zoom meetings throughout the lockdown, it allowed us to jump into full team practices feeling comfortable with our schemes.
Some may say that tumultuous lead-up to the season may have placed the Panthers at a distinct disadvantage for the 2021 campaign, but Breitzman refuses to dwell on it. His team challenged the Dragons regardless of their interrupted training and have built valuable character in the process.
Of course we would have liked to practice much earlier and have a traditional training camp, but it was out of our control. Austria had their share of obstacles to overcome as well,” Breitzman acknowledges. “I’m just proud of how we were able to manage the restrictions.
Because of how they’ve persevered, his team will get to make that much-anticipated trip across the Austrian border again on Saturday to play the Swarco Raiders. They’ll be breathing easier this time around but there is no excuses either. Breitzman expect his team to challenge the 2019 champs.
I expect us to be a tough football team who has a lot to prove in the AFL,” he predicts. “Our guys know how to win games in this league and we have to continue to build on that confidence.
Confidence will come with time on the field, something every Black Panther is now particularly grateful for.