How to finesse wearing a mask is the latest desired skill in high-school football.
There’s placement with the chin strap. Adding a mouth guard. And, of course, how to yell without the faux pas of pulling the mask down to project your voice.
“We’ve tried to kind of work through the process of instead of pulling it down, pull it out so it’s not in our mouth,” Kentwood coach Michael Bush said. “That’s been a big change. As I’m watching games and watching teams, myself included, you want to pull it down and say something. But it’s like, that’s a little bit defeating the purpose of the mask.”
Motivation to comply with new safety protocols is that the guidelines established under Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan for Washington is the only way high schools are cleared to play sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Leagues in Snohomish and King counties were among the last to play football. As those teams near a month of competition, keeping the mask in place is the biggest challenge.
Even the rule — everyone must wear a mask — was a problem.
“There was no meat to the rule,” said Steve Jensen, who assigns officials for football games in Snohomish County. “You can tell them (coaches and players) until you’re blue in the face to pull up their mask, but they’re smart; they know there’s no penalty.”
Earlier this month, the Washington Officials Association worked with the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association to set infractions for mask violations during games, whether it’s by a player or coach. If a player is wearing the mask incorrectly while on the field, they’re sent off for one down.
The first sight of a team wearing a mask inaccurately is a reminder to the coach about properly wearing masks. The second is a sideline warning. The third violation is a 5-yard penalty, then a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct against the coach and the fifth violation gets the team’s head coach ejected along with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty.
“It’s a huge change; it’s awesome,” Jensen said of compliance now that there’s a consequence. “Teammates are telling other teammates to pull up your mask. And we’re not out to penalize them, we’re out to remind them, and 99% of the time, they follow the rules. … As an official, it’s also really hard to do because you’ve got to keep your whistle in your mask. It’s not normal, but you figure it out.”
Multiple coaches said the first few weeks of practice were lessons on how to wear a mask and play. Some schools purchased shields for the football helmets for added protection.
“There’s little nuances figuring out how to get comfortable,” Seattle Prep coach Aaron Maul said. “Once they settled into the mouthpiece under the mask and then the mask underneath the chin strap, now it’s become just part of their routine in how they dress.”
Other safety protocols have been easier to follow. Teams have individual water bottles or use paper cups. Dots or tape mark the social-distancing spacing on sidelines and seating in the stands. Reports are that attestation screenings are working, but there have been COVID outbreaks across the state that have caused games to be canceled.
The possibility prompted Everett School District athletic director Robert Polk to send a mass email to his coaches to remind them to not “get blasé” about safety protocols. Everett Memorial Stadium held its first game with fans last week. Polk spent hours walking the stands with his tape measure to mark socially distanced, two-person pods.
Cascade defeated Everett 46-20 before about 400 people, mainly parents of players and cheerleaders and a few students.
“The P.A. announcer felt like he was actually talking to somebody,” Polk said. “To hear a reaction to a great play or an almost-great play, getting back to what we’re used to was really great.”
Metro League is permitting senior players to invite two guests for games beginning Friday.
That meant one of the biggest upsets wasn’t experienced in-person by the student body. Seattle Prep defeated O’Dea 15-14 on a two-point conversion with time expired last week. It was the first time the Panthers beat the Fighting Irish in 41 years.
“There are generations of Panthers that have reached out,” Maul said of the congratulatory calls he’s received. “It being a (COVID season) makes it more special. What these kids have had to overcome and what they’ve experienced in the last year, for them to have the opportunity to experience what they experienced Friday night is a blessing.”
The Snoqualmie Valley School District announced Thursday that the Mount Si High School football season is over because of positive COVID-19 for “multiple individuals participating” in a game against Issaquah last Saturday. The Wildcats (2-0) had two games remaining on their schedule. Issaquah’s game against Bellevue on Friday is listed as canceled on its website.