What felt like an eternity for sports fans, coaches and players alike finally is coming to an end.
The AHSAA announced Thursday its member schools could begin summer workouts June 1, which ironically is what would’ve been the start date of voluntary workouts regardless of the coronavirus pandemic.
Just last week, the AHSAA had predicted a start date of June 8 but after new mandates from Gov. Kay Ivey as well as an updated date for schools being allowed to reopen by state superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey, the AHSAA followed suit with a sooner-than-expected start date.
“It was a pleasant surprise,” Benjamin Russell football coach Kevin Smith said. “We were thinking June 8 then we got the news about it being June 1, so our biggest thing is it has put things into hyper drive. It’s kind of like a track meet, where we’ve been sitting here on the starting blocks waiting and now you find out that the gun’s going to go off quicker than you thought, so we have to get everything in place.”
Smith’s No. 1 priority has been for all the athletes to start getting in their necessary paperwork as physicals, parent consent forms and concussions forms must be turned in prior to athletes beginning any kind of workouts or conditioning.
Because of that, some coaches, like Reeltown football coach and athletic director Matt Johnson, have elected to keep the start date of June 8 and the plan he put in place with his coaches earlier this week.
“That’ll just give us another week to prepare,” Johnson said. “We’re going to have a mass parent meeting at the stadium (the week of June 1) and get all the paperwork done. We want to inform parents about the guidelines and what’s going to be different, so we’re all on the same page before we start.”
In the past, parents have been allowed to attend workouts and practices but that’s not the case anymore as AHSAA guidelines have stated non-essential personnel will not be allowed at the facilities during workouts. For the Rebels, that means players will need to be dropped off at a certain location and go through a sanitation station before beginning their workouts.
The AHSAA guidelines also require pre-screening of each athlete before workouts, which means temperatures should be taken and a set of questions should be asked to each player prior to entry.
“What’s tough is going to be the screening process before every workout,” Horseshoe Bend coach Jeremy Phillips said. “It’ll be time consuming, but it’s what we gotta do in order to work out and I’m just glad we’re able to have workouts.”
Coaches have already made various plans to follow the AHSAA guidelines, which include restrictions on sanitation, shared equipment and social distancing. Phillips said he’s gotten a spray disinfectant to use on weight room equipment and will also provide wipes for the players to use between sets.
Dadeville football coach Roger McDonald said he’ll require each player to bring his own water bottle and have players come dressed and prepared to immediately begin so they won’t have to come into the locker room.
Many area schools have small weight rooms so it’s going to be a challenge to keep athletes socially distanced, but coaches have made plans to split players into groups if necessary. McDonald has taken it a step further and will host two workout sessions a day so players can choose which better suits them.
“We’re going to do a lot of outside stuff because it’s just easier when you have a football field to spread them out on,” McDonald said. “We’re not even going to worry about a lot of team stuff right now but we’re going to focus on strength and conditioning. That makes this a lot easier to fit the guidelines. Regardless of the guidelines, that’s the way I’ve always done things with my summer program anyway.”
Like McDonald, the Wildcats may also be broken into groups to work out. Typically, Benjamin Russell splits its team in half with one part in the weight room and another on the practice field and those groups may be even smaller this year.
“It’s going to be an evolving process,” Smith said. “The planning outside is going to be pretty close to the same other than the fact that there’s going to be a little more distancing. Mainly we’re just glad to be getting everybody back together in the same vicinity and tak to them face to face.”
The initial weeks of summer will be a balancing act for most. As football teams missed their spring periods, they didn’t have evaluations so coaches will need to get a good look at their players during this time.
“June, we’re usually going hard and it’s just a carryover from where we left off in May,” Johnson said. “Now we’re going to have to condition and work on strength all at the same time as evaluating. We’re combining those phases and that’s where you have to be careful. Kids know they are competing for a spot; they’re going to be pushing each other and themselves. There will be a competitive spirit like no other because they’ve been gone for nine weeks, so we have to balance all that and continue to be safe.”
Coaches also unanimously agree it’ll be important to stress how crucial it is to follow these guidelines, however time consuming or tedious they may be, because they know the potential consequences if they aren’t followed.
“The big thing is if we come in and every school starts all of a sudden having a spike in the virus, they’ll shut it down and we’ll have no chance of having football in the fall,” McDonald said. “We’re going to show we can follow the guidelines and progress to another level to where we can open this thing up and have full-scale football in the fall.”
But that excitement certainly has been building and there’s no doubt coaches and players alike are ready to get back to the sport they love.
“I’ve had a lot of guys getting in touch already saying they’re ready to get back and ready to see each other and the coaches,” Phillips said. “I think the break is going to be a benefit to morale and intensity. They’ve missed that routine and structure and I think everybody is ready to get back to normal.”