The “new” normal for high-school football teams in Washington began Wednesday with Day 1 of fall practice across the state. In just over two weeks, the first full season in two years will kick off Sept. 2.
It begins just four months after players and coaches were on the sidelines for a COVID-19 pandemic-truncated and delayed season last spring. That quick turnaround has its positives and negatives.
The virus does remain a constant concern. But with the sounds of coaches barking and pads snapping on football fields around the state, at least in part the pandemic has been pushed partially into the background for now.
“COVID has had such an impact on so many lives, and that’s not even taking into account the people that have lost somebody,” Tahoma coach Tony Davis said during a North Puget Sound League media day this week at Auburn High. “But what it also has created is an appreciation for this game, and just how precious each one of those practices and those team-building activities and those team dinners and those games are.
“It’s a chance to get those juices flowing again, and what will be regular, just being in the locker room again. That kind of stuff. It’s those little things.”
For the six games or so played in the spring, teams couldn’t even use locker rooms. They arrived at stadiums dressed, did pregame, halftime and postgame meetings in the stands or end zones and went home.
“It was weird,” Davis said. “It was like junior football.”
With school being conducted remotely, COVID changed interactions. Zoom meetings took place regularly. But daily interaction didn’t happen.
“It just wasn’t the same as being able to reach out and show them that we care,” Kentwood coach Mike Bush said. “The kids were disconnected from school for a while, away from coaches for like six, seven months. Being a head coach that has 110 kids that depend on you to be in their lives and see in the hallway, that disconnect part was tough.”
The Washington State Department of Health announced last week that masks will not have to be worn during outside practices or during games.
Federal Way coach Marcus Yzaguirre said his team might still wear masks that attach to the helmets, at least early on, to make sure everyone is safe.
“There’s still some unknown,” Yzaguirre said. “You still always feel like you’re on pins and needles. Are you going to shut me down? We’re going in like we’re going to have a season. But we still have COVID protocols. We’re still making sure kids use sanitizer. Masks at all times inside the school. We’re still making sure we have all the cleaning equipment out there. Still making sure we can wipe pads down. So, it definitely has an effect.”
The effects haven’t stopped the preparation like they did a year ago.
“It was real heartbreaking two years ago, not being able to go play, just go throw the ball around, whatever,” Tahoma defensive lineman Just Ketzenberg said. “It just really makes you think about all the time you’ve had with your guys. That’s what I’m really excited for — just playing. There’s something to strive for. We’re ready.”
The opportunity is key for players.
“I think it’s getting pretty normal now,” Kennedy Catholic quarterback Mason Hayes said. “For school, we still have to wear masks. I don’t know, but at least we get to be full time in person which is really helpful. For football, we don’t have to wear masks this year. We get a full schedule.”
“It just reminded people that high-school football is such a special thing,” Davis said. “Sports has changed. It’s not quite what it used to be, so we have to adapt to that.”
The trick now is to work within the changed confines brought on by the ever-present threats that COVID-19 embodies. Breakouts of the virus can alter a team’s season.
“Last year was exhausting,” Davis said. “There wasn’t a day go by that you didn’t have to deal something with COVID. This is a chance to get back to normal for the fall. We can’t wait. The kids are the same way, because they know what it was like. Five years down the road, when you have a whole new generation of kids come through, I don’t think they’ll have an appreciation like this group will.”