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File / The Outlook Reeltown's Caleb Gantt has been in touch with coach Matt Johnson quite often during the coronavirus pandemic, keeping up with his offseason workouts.

Family has always been more important than football for the Reeltown Rebels.

Of course Reeltown wants to win football games and it does a lot of that, but there’s so much more to just the Xs and Os for the Rebels and especially Reeltown coach Matt Johnson.

“The relationship we have with the guys, I’m proud of that,” Johnson said. “To a lot of coaches it’s more important to win, but it’s honestly not in our program. It’s about being able to have fun with the guys, pick on them and joke with them. But it’s not just a friendly thing; there’s a lot of discipline here too.”

For Johnson, that’s been the toughest part of the coronavirus pandemic. He has no doubt his players are doing what they’re supposed to be doing — or at least to the best of their abilities — in terms of working out, staying in shape and keeping up a good conditioning routine. But how does a team replicate an in-person workout? Johnson doesn’t have the answer.

“It’s like a long-distance relationship,” Johnson said. “Everybody wants to see each other but you can’t. It sucks and it takes a toll on you. A lot of these jokers, I see every day and even talk to a whole lot of them seven days a week. Not being able to see them, it bothers you. You can try to act hard and bad all you want, but we love these kids.”

Johnson and the Rebels put a lot of stock into the offseason. He’ll be the first to tell someone the games aren’t won on Friday nights, but they’re won by how much effort and work players put into their offseason training and workout plans.

A big chunk of what comes with that is also building team chemistry.

“This is when a team really comes together,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to say we put them through a hellacious deal but it isn’t easy on them. You’re grinding in the weight room, working out; it’s hot in the spring. It’s the end of the year so you’re doing testing and finishing up finals, and it’s so important to have your teammates to lean on. You can look next to you and think, ‘This guy is going through the same thing I’m going through,’ and that’s where that bond strengthens.”

Because of what Reeltown went through last year — fighting together all the way to the state championship game — the squad has a good foundation. Johnson also said a lot of leaders have emerged. Guys like Dee Griffin, Logan Lee, Zy Collins and LJ Hill have all stepped into leadership roles and are trying to take it upon themselves to hold their teammates accountable.

“Caleb Gantt, I’ve heard from him more over the past week than I have in all the time I’ve been coaching him,” Johnson said. “Johnny Brown is another one that’s working his tail off. We’ve definitely got some guys that I know are communicating with each other and they’re competing. They’re talking trash to each other about who’s doing what and who’s not doing what. It’s all fun and games but it’s also honest accountability.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Johnson sent out two workout plans: one for players who have access to regular workout equipment and one he calls the “quarantine workout” for players who don’t. It uses things found around the house. The team also has an app it uses to communicate regularly and the coaching staff has individual groups it contacts each week.

“The main thing is the communication part and I feel like we’ve been able to do a really good job with that,” Johnson said.

Reeltown’s spring training should’ve started this week and with optional workouts, which typically begin the last week of May, right around the corner, Johnson is starting to make contingency plans. But he said it’s hard to plan for anything at this time because everything is so up in the air and he has no idea how to predict when he’ll be allowed to see his players again.

“I hope everybody’s plan is in a live document in Google Drive so they can adjust on the run,” Johnson said. “We have our plan that’s a hope and that’s the only thing we can hold onto right now because it literally changes week to week.”

Lizi Arbogast is the sports editor at Tallapoosa Publishers, Inc.