CLARKSVILLE — Like most of his coaching brethren around the area, Larry Denison eagerly anticipates the first day of football practice each year.

Monday, however, was a bit bittersweet for the Providence coach who is beginning his ninth year at the helm of the program.

That’s because Denison’s former coach, mentor and friend, Gene Sartini, who guided the Pioneers for four decades, passed away Saturday at the age of 88.

“It’s a very difficult day,” Denison said in his office Monday afternoon shortly before his team headed out onto Sartini Field for the opening practice of the 2019 season. “As a football coach you always look forward to this day, it’s always a special day you’ve had marked on your calendar — the first day of practice starting — so we’re glad to see that. But unfortunately the loss of Coach Sartini is kind of making it very emotional this time. I know Coach would love to be here with us, and I’m sure he is in spirit, but he wouldn’t want us to do anything else other than being out there practicing football today.”

“It’s definitely nice to get into the start of regular practice ... but it’s definitely hard knowing that such a good coach and such a legend in the Providence football community passed away this weekend,” senior lineman Vincent Benningfield added.

Sartini posted a 279-168 record in 40 years with the Pioneers. He guided them to five sectional titles (1982, ‘85, ‘93, ‘94 and 2007), one regional championship (‘93) and to a pair of state runner-up finishes (1973 and ‘93). He was inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame in 2004 — six years before he coached his last game at Providence.

In recent years Sartini had become a regular at practice, often helping out with the Pioneers’ punters and placekickers.

That’s one reason why junior kicker/punter Nathan Striby said he entered Monday’s first practice with a tinge of “sadness.”

“I’ve been thinking about Coach a lot,” he said. “I worked with him for two years straight. He was an inspiration to me throughout the whole entire practice, teaching me everything that I know. I wouldn’t be here today without him.”

Visitation for Sartini is 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at Kraft Funeral Service at 2776 Charlestown Road. His funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at St. Anthony in Clarksville followed by burial at Kraft-Graceland Memorial Park.

Prior to his funeral, though, Sartini will be taken to Providence’s Murphy Stadium for one final trip down the field that bears his name. Former players, managers and coaches, along with anyone else affiliated with the Sartini Era, are invited to attend and help create a human tunnel on the field that Monday was occupied by the latest edition of the Pioneers.

“He was a great coach and somebody who everybody seemed to know and love,” Benningfield said. “It’s interesting to see how he can bring a community together. Even after his passing everybody still wants to represent the best for Providence.”