Social distancing adds challenges
to preseason football practices
By Matt Harris
North Sanpete football coach Rhett Bird’s frequent yelling at football camp this year has been borne of necessity.
He’s never had to have his players so far apart before.
Sanpete’s high school football teams recently finished up their training camps and are beginning mandatory team practices in preparation for a fall season that remained one of the biggest questions of the upcoming school year. That is, up until two weeks ago.
On Thursday, July 9, the Utah High School Activities Association Board of Trustees unanimously voted to approve the fall sports season in the wake of the increasingly prevalent COVID-19 pandemic. With their decision, which will be under further evaluation later this month, the UHSAA also released a detailed strategy of “Return-to-Play” guidelines in order to ensure the utmost safety and health of players and staff as possible, particularly in relation to contact sports like football.
Those additional measures put practices in a different light, Bird said.
“Practices have changed by the way we social distance,” he said. “We have been used to high-fiving and being close to each other as a team should [be], and we have learned to keep our distance and give the ‘atta boys’ in different ways. Other than the social distancing, I would say practice is running as normal as usual. We do have other procedures in place such as logging attendance and taking temperatures.”
Manti football coach Cole Meacham talked about much of the same going on in his camps, such as symptom checks with each practice, mandating individual water bottles, regularly and repeatedly disinfecting blocking sleds and other field equipment, and keeping Manti’s 70 players spread out according to position groups.
The safety measures didn’t stop Meacham from holding a solid camp. “Camp really went pretty good,” Meacham said. “It’s not a whole lot of change for us.”
Perhaps the 25 years of experience coaching the Templars that Meacham has, and the resilience and training Bird has, have prepared these two coaches for the challenges and strange circumstances brought on by these trying times.
Down in the south end of the valley, it is a whole new level of weird. Rhett Jackson, only a couple months into his time as the athletic director for the Gunnison Valley Bulldogs is going into his first fall sports season, and it couldn’t be coming at a more challenging time.
“I am grateful that I have been an AD before and have several years of school administrative experience that I can rely on to help GVHS navigate these challenging times,” Jackson said. “I am a great believer in the power of our students and the positive energy getting back to extra-curricular activities will be for all of us.”
Jackson took over the athletics department after former director Richard Peterson stepped down last spring shortly after the shutdown. His most important task may very well be how to safely handle Gunnison’s football season, going into its second season under coach Patrick King, who guided the Bulldogs to a 3-7 record that carried some promise in how players responded to their new leaders.
“We’ll definitely follow the guidelines of the local county health department,” Jackson said. “There is some fluidity to it still depending on how the cases throughout the state go.”
If fans, particularly sports fans who have had to survive on reruns and ESPN documentaries since March, show up and show out for games this fall, that could create a most splendid problem for athletics departments being held to a strict mandate of no more than 6000 people in attendance.
In other words, don’t worry too much about Gunnison at Whitehorse, but start planning for homecoming as soon as possible.
“What this virus had made is six weeks feels like an eternity,” Jackson said when asked about managing game attendance. “That’s going to be very, very difficult. People will have to be counted on to do the right thing.”
Meacham was pretty direct in his thoughts on the situation, saying simply, “I don’t know what they’re going to do.”
The guidelines given by the Board are most notably designated according to the risk phase that the state and each county fall in from day to day, and that carries the possibility of midseason schedule complication due to the widespread nature of Gunnison’s, Manti’s and North Sanpete’s schedule.
Perhaps most notably, both Manti and North Sanpete have scheduled region games against American Leadership Academy, a school situated up in Utah County, the county second only to Salt Lake in overall coronavirus cases.
If Utah County is at an “orange” risk level, even while Sanpete remains a “yellow,” the game will be called off and declared a no-contest, thus creating neither positive nor negative effect on either team’s overall RPI.
According to Meacham, if that happens, plans are made to try and fill the holes made in teams’ schedules. One such way mentioned would be pitting other 2A/3A teams against each other if they both missed games.
In all the preparation and practice, it would yet remain no great shock to many coaches and players if the season ultimately didn’t pan out after all. After seeing the effect the initial shutdown of spring sports had upon the morale of the community, like air rushing out of a tire, Meacham understood that he carries a responsibility to prepare his young men to accept an attitude of accepting circumstances.
“We’ve just been talking to the kids about how there’s things that are in our control and there’s things that are not in our control,” Meacham said. “If it comes to it and we end up getting shut down…this is a life lesson. Sometimes, you’re going to run into things that are out of your control.”
Even the young and optimistic Bird knows what may happen. “There will be some sort of distraction,” Bird said, “but…I think that kids understand that they need to take advantage of every moment because you never know what will happen. We hope to play a full season but we will take it one week at a time like always.”