Local fall high school sports teams, including, of course, football, got the long-awaited go-ahead this week to begin off-season team workouts after Gov. Wolf officially moved Lebanon County into the green phase of re-opening as recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic slowly continues across the state and the nation.
But it sure looked different as a “new normal” of social distancing, mask-wearing and disinfecting equipment regularly came right along with the start of workouts and drills.
That being said, it was still good for teams to be together again, even if it was in a much different way than it used to be. And even though it may stay that way for a while.
“We’re socially distanced and not using footballs or anything yet,” said Cedar Crest football coach Rob Wildasin, whose squad held its first workout Monday. “So it’s a lot of conditioning and strength training, with body weight and no weights yet. It’s baby steps. That’s where we are. We’re trying to do the best we can.
“That part of it (seeing the kids again) is awesome. It’s just great to see kids and be back on the field. The guys responded well to it. They’re excited to be out there.”
For some teams, the beginning of official workouts is more important than others.
For teams returning a lot of veterans, it’s important to quickly get back in the swing of things and get back to last season’s level of play while schools like Annville-Cleona, which was gutted by graduation, are breaking in an almost entirely new team and basically starting from scratch.
“It was interesting, because a lot of these kids were brand new,” said Annville-Cleona football coach Matt Gingrich, whose squad lost the majority of last season’s squad to graduation. “We only return one starter on both sides of the ball. It is, what it is. But the best part is they were very motivated, they worked really fast. I think they were happy to be back together. It was neat to actually have that time together.”
Elco coach Bob Miller’s Raiders don’t have their first on-the-football field get-together until Thursday evening, and it can’t come soon enough for Miller, who believes that there are more important things that happen on the gridiron and in the locker room than just football.
“I think the biggest thing in high school sports is the closeness of the team,” Miller said. “You don’t get that in club teams, you don’t get that in anything. And the fact that we can get back to that is really important – for our kids, for the parents, for the coaches, to get back to that sort of normalcy.”
There is, however, a fair amount of chaos that comes with the return to the field and it may take a while to sort it all out. Each school district was required to come up with its own safety plan and there seem to be a lot of gray areas when it comes to what each team is required to do, in Wildasin’s opinion.
“I had a fellow high school head coach tell me, ‘This is like the Wild West of high school sports,'” Wildasin said. “And I think that’s pretty appropriate. We’ve all got Twitter account now, so you can see, let’s just say, that some schools are much further ahead than others. Some are following some rules and others are following other rules, and I’m not saying any are right or wrong. What are the rules? Nobody knows. The PIAA was vague, in my opinion, and they dumped it on the school districts and the school districts are trying to do the best they can. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
There is also the specter of the coronavirus still hanging over high school sports.
Will it continue to subside in Pennsylvania, as it for the most part seems to be doing, with the exception of Allegheny County? Or it will ramp up again, as it has in states like Texas and Florida, and force a return to tighter restrictions. Nobody really knows.
“The stuff in the Pittsburgh area, where they had to shut down workouts, kinda scared some coaches, myself included,” Miller said. “I told the kids, ‘This isn’t something to disregard. It is serious and it’s real, you can’t just brush it off.’ But if we can plan ahead and have your (safety) protocols, there are adaptations you can make (in practice).”
And despite the return to team workouts, there is still no guarantee that the regular season will start on time, or if there will even be one yet. Such is life when trying to plan a high school sports season in the midst of a pandemic.
“2020 might be the most interesting year in our entire lifetimes,” Gingrich said. “If you told me we were gonna play, I would believe it. And if you told me aliens were gonna land on the planet I’d also believe it. Moving forward, each day I will wake up and whatever email comes to me I will react accordingly. I’m not gonna even worry about it.”