SALT LAKE CITY — Two and a half months from now, on Aug. 14, the high school football season is slated to kick off with 53 games across the state.
What that night might look like is anybody’s guess. Empty stands or packed stands? Day games or night games? Crammed sidelines or players spread far apart?
Regardless of what the night resembles — and how the next 21⁄2 months even play out to get to that point — the most common word coaches use to describe the upcoming season is optimism.
It may look different than any other season because of COVID-19, but Wasatch coach Steve Coburn said he’s cautiously optimistic about the season getting started on time.
Dixie coach Blaine Monkres said he’s also optimistic about the season getting started, it’s the middle and finish he’s unsure sure of. There are so many contingency issues that still need to be resolved before his cautious optimism turns into confidence.
“It depends on how we are going to handle things. If they plan on stopping the season if one kid gets COVID-19 then they might as well not even start because you know someone is going to get it,” said Monkres.
East coach Brandon Matich said it’s impossible to predict how things will play out between now and Aug. 14, but just like it’s been the past two months, his focus will be on the well-being and safety of East’s families. When football is ready to be one of the priorities, he has no doubt his players will be ready.
“I will follow whatever protocol is developed and go from there. But, I am planning for a 2020 season ... and so are our boys. We are excited to start and excited to compete. Our kids have been so good during this process, but they are getting hungrier by the day, as I’m sure most programs are,” said Matich.
About 60% of the state’s programs were cleared to start summer conditioning and practicing with restrictions this week, while all but four districts (Jordan, Murray, Park City and Rich) have been cleared to start next week.
For most programs as mandated by school districts, contact isn’t permitted yet, which limits a lot of what the players are able to do.
For Riverton coach Jody Morgan, who’s also the new president of the Utah High School Football Coaches Association, contact is the center of his uncertainty for the upcoming season. When will full contact be permitted?
It’s not necessary now, and teams could conceivable get by with contact restrictions for the next six weeks, but eventually those restrictions have to be lifted for football to exist, and every program in the state needs to be on the same page. Player safety is a big reason why.
Injuries are one of the big concerns from coaches because of the shortened build-up to the season. Many players around Utah didn’t have access to proper weightlifting equipment over the past 21⁄2 months, which puts them well behind the strength and conditioning baseline they’d typically have by now.
Coaches and players will try and bridge that gap smartly between now and the start of the season, but they’ll never be able to make up for lost time.
Player safety was one of the main talking points when Morgan met with the UHSAA a couple weeks ago to discuss a wide range of contingencies. Before the meeting, Morgan polled his peers about what they believe is the minimum time necessary to safely and properly prepare for a season. The consensus was a bare-minimum of four weeks of practice without restrictions, and more preferably six weeks.
Four weeks gives teams a week of proper conditioning, a week of acclimatization with helmets and then two weeks of padded practices before the season.
If four weeks is the minimum, then unrestricted practices need to start by July 20 otherwise a delayed started to the season is likely. That might mean the elimination of some preseason games, or extending the season into December.
Regardless, Morgan said flexibility from everyone is the only way to make the season happen.
“Getting sports off the ground is definitely going to be different than any year we’ve done this before. Do I think it’s doable? Absolutely, but us as high school coaches have never gone through this before, and we need guidance,” said Morgan.
That guidance from government officials will ultimately help everyone feel more confident about the 2020 season. Getting six proper weeks to get ready would help with everyone’s confidence as well.
“With six weeks you’d be able to install more. With four weeks you’re going to see very basic offenses and defenses. Teams who utilized Zooms would be better prepared for the season ...,” said Morgan.
The bulk of practice time in June is usually spent on weightlifting, conditioning and seven-on-seven (work). If the bulk of the seven-on-seven season is wiped out, there’s going to be a lot of rusty teams when the season gets going — especially the 19 programs with new coaches who are also installing new offenses and defenses.
Even though the product won’t be as sharp as a normal season, Monkres said the kids would still have fun regardless, which is why everyone wants to play anyway.