Crooksville Coronavirus Offseason Training
Crooksville players stay in small groups during conditioning (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)

An Offseason in a Pandemic: SEO Coaches Go In-Depth on Abnormal Summer

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Nine months ago, nearly the entire town of Crooksville Ohio funnelled into downtown Village Park to commemorate the 100th year of their Ceramics’ football program, and to gear up for a rivalry game against the New Lexington Panthers.

Hundreds of fans, students, parents, and coaches enjoyed the festivities in preparation for the contest, which would see Village Park Stadium filled to the brim with onlookers from both towns.

Fast forward to June of this year, and Village Park Stadium looked very different. Three groups of four student-athletes were scattered across the field, each led by one coach, keeping their distance from one another while going through conditioning drills. Thunderous cheers from Friday-night crowds had been replaced by near-total silence, broken only by the occasional blown whistle or instruction barked from Head Coach Casey Vallee and his staff.

Crooksville players stay in small groups during conditioning (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)

“Fortunately for us we get to come down here inside the stadium where nobody else can be around,” Vallee said after that day’s practice. “So it helps us to follow the guidelines and we’re trying to do everything we can.”

“It’s a lot of stuff nobody’s ever seen in a football practice.”

In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, high school programs around the area are finding out just how big of a difference nine months can make.

The COVID-19 virus’ emergence has cast nationwide doubt over the feasibility of upcoming seasons in all levels of sport, from the pros to high school. As for Ohio, the OHSAA has not announced any cancellations or formal restrictions for the impending high school football season, but offseason programs have been altered considerably.

A multi-phase plan was widely implemented with the goal of increasing student and coach safety and minimizing the spread of Coronavirus. The guidelines’ specifics vary by school, but generally include daily temperature checks on all student-athletes, intensive cleaning requirements, limits to the amount of students in a group, social distancing standards between groups, and not allowing multiple students to touch the same football.

Eight miles from Crooksville, New Lexington head coach Kevin Board spoke on the obstacles the offseason has imposed.

“We’re really following NFHS (National Federation of State High School Associations) guidelines, almost to a tee where we’re not taking any more than ten per group [in phase one],” Board said. “And ten included the coach, so we had nine kids out there with a coach. Certainly it’s not ideal, but like I said, I would take this any day over nothing at all.”

In a time of uncertainty, making the most of the situation is a sentiment shared by coaches around the area. The pandemic required coaches to get creative with offseason training, especially in the early days when many programs didn’t know when they’d be able to start their offseason.

Zoom meetings, team apps, email and social media were all used as means of communication by coaches to try and keep their players in shape over the summer. Some coaches, like Vallee, found ways to add the usual training camp spirit of competition into virtual workouts.

“We handed workouts out, it was a six week workout plan, we tried to make it fun,” Vallee said.  “There was no March Madness, so we took a March Madness bracket and put all our kids on it. We had some competition battles, like we had linemen, we had freshmen, then they had to send videos on Friday of how much they did.”

While we’ve now seen teams get back on the playing field, as the number of Coronavirus cases rose across the nation a few short months ago, in-person instruction seemed to be in danger of being banned completely over the summer.

The Frontier Athletic Conference’s top two teams last season were the Washington Court House Blue Lions and the Jackson Ironmen. A 60 mile drive separates the two schools in the far-reaching FAC, but both felt the ramifications of the pandemic. Ohio had announced the shut down of all sports in the spring, and with a restart date having yet to be communicated, teams were trying to find ways to still hone their student-athletes’ skills.

“The day that I found out we were gonna be shut down we sent them home with a workout packet and then we emailed them,” Blue Lions Head Coach Chuck Williamson said. “We emailed daily, called it “play of the day,” so we emailed a play to them each day, we took a picture of it and sent it to them.”

Running back James McCane holds the ball after a play in the Blue Lions win against the McClain Tigers. Photo: Jackson Baehr
Jayden Spires fights through a tackle in the Ironmens game against the Stars. (Joe Collins/WOUB)
A Western Brown player takes down a Hillsboro runner

Williamson was one of many coaches who were concerned about the prospect of not having their players on the football field this summer.

“Each of the staff was getting coached up on how to do the Zoom meetings,” Williamson said. “And I mean, we were prepared to go that way because we thought for sure that’s what we’d be doing.”

While preparing for the worst, in-person practices would be approved by the state, as Lt. Governor Husted announced on June 18, to the elation of coaches around SEO.

“I was super excited the day we found out and the moment it got announced on Governor Dewines’ presser, that high school sports were coming back,” Board said.

“I think I had four kids text me within the first five minutes, like “alrighty coach it’s time to get to work, let’s go,” and then obviously we had to go into some planning.”

Excitement gave way to concern as programs had to start the process of building their offseason to both comply with the newly founded restrictions, and make up for lost time. Weight rooms had been empty for months, and while coaches and players alike were eager to get back to practicing, many recognized the need to not go full throttle from day one.

“We tried to gradually get them into it because I got some of my kids, we sent workouts to them every week,” Jackson’s Andy Hall said. “Through their emails, so they had body weight workouts but they didn’t have a weight room.”

“We started at a point where the kids who haven’t done a whole lot or just did body weight stuff weren’t gonna get hurt the first week. So trying to find that happy medium of kind of where to start with all of them.”

“We really lost the last half of March, April and May,” Williamson said. “And that’s just lifting and running, and that’s all we’re allowed to do there.”

The re-opening of practices revealed the advantages and disadvantages different programs had, be it through socioeconomic fortune, number of returning student-athletes, or simply sheer number of players. One school that found themselves fortunate enough to return much of their squad was the Wellston Golden Rockets. The Golden Rockets, fresh off their first playoff appearance since 2006, lost some key pieces, but Head Coach Mike Smith knows it could’ve been much worse.

“We’re more fortunate than most because we’ve got so many kids coming back,” Smith said. “Think about those guys that graduated their whole offensive line or their whole backfield, you know they’ve lost all the spring, and what little they’ve done to this point, they can’t get a ball, can’t do anything like that so, where do you go from there?”

The Tomcats and Wildcats line up in the trenches during their game Friday. Photo: Nick Henthorn
Nick Little holds a block during Easterns game against the Southern Tornadoes. (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)

Smith, though, like every other program, still had to take time to get his players back in shape.

“The last couple months before then they’ve not done a whole lot, if they’re like my son they’ve probably not done a whole lot but play Playstation and whatever, there were no places to go, nothing to do so what else do you expect out of them?”

Some teams will find replacing experience more difficult under the new guidelines, but difficulties extend beyond returning players. The TVC-Hocking, sister conference to Wellston’s TVC-Ohio, is made up of teams from small schools in oft-financially disadvantaged areas. For these teams, even getting a hold of all of your players can be an issue, something Phil Faires, coach of perennial powerhouse Trimble, dealt with this summer.

“It’s hard because you’ve got kids, especially freshmen, coming in, a lot of them don’t even have phones,” Faires said. “And so I told them all you know, make sure I’ve got a number if it’s grandma or ma that you live with.”

Small schools like Trimble, servicing a little over 200 kids, would usually be at a sizable disadvantage to one like Jackson, with an enrollment of nearly 2,000, under normal conditions. But the offseason has not been a normal one, and under the guidelines and restrictions implemented onto the teams, lesser numbers have provided their own benefits.

“We’re actually lucky,” Faires said. “The smaller schools are usually at a disadvantage in everything, but this is probably a little bit of an advantage, it’s a lot easier to get 40 kids in than the 70 and 80 that some schools have.”

When a coach can only be around a group of nine kids at a time, higher player counts can equate to very long days.

“We ran sessions from eight in the morning to two in the afternoon today and we’ll do that everyday [in phase one],” Hall said. “I got 30 freshmen, so you’re gonna try to get 80-something kids through in a week and you’re only gonna have nine at a time.”

Struggles to get players the needed amount of conditioning have been matched by struggles to implement the playbook. The months off had created setbacks both physical and strategic as players lost time to commit gameplans to memory.

“We scaled [the playbook] down a little bit,” Williamson said. “We had a staff meeting of course and we scaled a little bit of the run game down and a couple of our schemes we took out just because we are only allowed to work with seven players during that time.”

Now into July, the start of the season draws closer every day, and although the future is murky, the possibility of the season’s cancellation has not deterred the teams in Gridiron Glory’s coverage area from going ahead with the offseason- restrictions and all.

Around SEO, even in towns with limited numbers of confirmed Coronavirus cases, coaches stressed the seriousness of the situation. No team wants to be the one that gets an outbreak on their hands, and while the restrictions have proven to be an obstacle, instructors and players alike seem committed to following them.

“The biggest thing is just being able to make sure that we’re doing it the right way,” Hall said.

“We felt like we’re meeting all the guidelines through the distancing and the limited numbers, we clean after every session, we disinfect every hour that comes through, I take time and we’ll clean for the next group that comes in. And then my custodial staff will do a deep clean every evening.”

Extra work for coaches to ensure player safety, and extra hours on the field for the players themselves, as smaller groups meant longer practices.

“It’s a long day for them, I mean we’re out there for almost three hours. Our normal practice sessions are 90 to 95 minutes,” Willaimson said. “And we explained that to them, we told them that you’re gonna be out here a lot longer than normal because of the way we have to do things.”

Wellston students distance themselves from each other in the weight room. (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)
Wellston students distance themselves from each other in the weight room. (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)
Wellston students distance themselves from each other in the weight room. (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)

The guidelines themselves are the result of layers of restrictions.

Suggestions that come down from the National Federation of State High School Associations have been widely accepted to different degrees across the country, with some states following them completely, and other states, such as Florida, only taking bits and pieces. Then formal recommendations are funnelled down from the state’s High School Athletic Association, through different county health guidelines, and finally into any additional restrictions individual schools implement.

Some coaches privately held reservations about how closely other programs have followed the guidelines, citing twitter videos showing large groups of athletes on the field.

Even as teams settle into their new style of practicing, reservations remain about the long-term plan for the season.

“These coronavirus guidelines have been pretty serious but, what’s going to happen when they do lift the restrictions?” Wellston’s Mike Smith said. “Because it’s still going to be here, so what’s going to happen then?”

For the students though, the season- still slated to start in August- is a long way away, and right now, it seems they’re just happy to be back out with their teammates.

School’s closure in early March left Ohio’s high schoolers without any of the usual end of school-year pageantry, especially so for seniors, who were not able to have the usual large graduation ceremony. The offseason training, despite it’s abnormal features, has provided a sense of normalcy for the athletes.

“We have a lot of kids that are happy right now to be back out, be in the weightroom, be with their friends,” Mike DeVol, head coach of the TVC-Hocking’s Belpre Golden Eagles, said. “But it was very disappointing, because we had kids that were supposed to play in the BACF [Battle Against Cystic Fibrosis] All -Star game and they didn’t get to do so, didn’t get to have graduation, there’s a lot of things that were missed.”

Wellston students stay in small groups during conditioning drills (Nick Henthorn/WOUB)

The return of football has proved to be a relief for the parents as well.

“I don’t know who was more excited, the kids to get there or the parents to drop them off,” Jackson’s Andy Hall said. “So they were real excited to get back, I was happy to see them, it was nice to see some faces that I hadn’t seen in almost three months.”

For the students, football may be a simple outlet to compete with their friends, and for parents, an outlet to get them out of the house for a while. But for the communities at large, the pandemic has made the importance of their high school football team starkly clear.

“We’ve got a pretty unique group and situation here,” Trimble’s Phil Faires said. “People here are pretty in love with football and want their kids out there.”

“They can’t wait for football, so hopefully we can give it to them. Folks like coming by and even seeing a seven-on-seven practice just seems to put everyone in better spirits.”

Conversely, Washington Court House’s Chuck Williamson stressed the importance of staying safe despite the town’s desire to see football again.

“The fans and the community’s such a big part of our program, and every program. A lot of towns follow their football teams and it’s a big deal,” Williamson said. “But you can’t put the health of your student athletes and your students at risk, so I’m sure they’ll make the right call there.”

With the OHSAA’s latest statement on golf, tennis and volleyball possibly suggesting that they will leave the decision to cancel the season or not up to each individual team, schools will have to look not only at the community’s support, but also at the financial ramifications of cancelling a season, or not selling tickets to fans.

“Whether it’s going to be a limited amount of fans, no fans,” Jackson’s Andy Hall said. “Packed house where you make a choice whether you want to come or not, I think in the college and pros [there will be fans] definitely because of the money. Of course we would hurt financially too if we didn’t have fans, don’t get me wrong.”

“I think a lot of sports, especially at the high school level, really depend on your fall sports for financial stability,” New Lexington’s Kevin Board said.

With new Coronavirus cases in Ohio exceeding 1,000 per day, many are wondering what a potential season would look like. Only five games? Limited fans? No fans? No playoffs? There are a surplus of questions, and no one, including the coaches, have anything but speculation to offer right now. A number of coaches expressed more skeptical views of the coming season’s chances, but others remained hopeful for what would come.

“Everywhere I go that’s the first question “will there be football this year?” I tell them 50-50,” Faires said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, and what I don’t want to tell them is, I think right now what would happen is there would be football, but no fans in the stands. There might be a riot if I said that, so I don’t.”

The issue of playoffs brings its own unique factors to consider, as the extended traveling gives rise to concerns of spreading the COVID-19 virus across the state.

“The answer I’ve given consistently is I’m fairly certain the season will not look normal,” Paul Culver, head coach of the MVL’s reigning co-champion Sheridan Generals, said. “Whatever that shakes out to be, […] whether that is no playoffs, because I think it’s one thing for us to play the five or six school districts that already border us. In the playoffs now all of a sudden you’re genuinely mixing communities. And then they all go back where they came from, that’s where you have catastrophic outbreaks.”

For more experienced coaches, conjecture over what the season will look like gives way to wonderment over the unprecedented situation.

“I’ve either played or coached football for 66 years,” Belpre’s Mike DeVol said. “I don’t think one time we’ve ever shut down the school, we’ve shut down practices. Now if you go back and look at some of the old pictures of football games in 1918, the stands were still packed but everybody wore a mask and it was totally different.”

Wellston’s Mike Smith was amongst several coaches who affirmed the centrality of fans to the Friday night experience.

“I mean, sports is for the fans, it’s for the athletes too, but primarily it’s for the fans,” Smith said. “I could see them maybe restricting the amount of people, but once people get into a place, are they going to constantly stay six feet apart? How do you regulate all that?”

“I want to play as bad as anybody, but to have one of these kids end up dead, it’s not worth that to me.”

More than a month has passed since that practice in Crooksville, and the teams of SEO have progressed through the state’s multi-phase plan, and begun being cleared to operate in a greater capacity.

“Instead of just ten total [students] there, we can have them all, just in different groups,” Faires said. “We can have one coach there with six or seven, ten kids, and another coach there with another group, we’re really not too far behind where we usually are.”

In hindsight, some coaches identified the positives that came from the guideline’s restrictions.

“It was good to have small groups to watch each individual more closely than if they would have all come in at once,” Board said over text. “Relationships were built because of small groups.”

Caden Miller attempts to get by a Philo defender

“All of this certainly wasn’t ideal, but it was better than the alternative, which was nothing at all.”

Neither Faires nor Board indicated that they had any athletes show signs of the COVID-19 virus, or that they were aware of any outbreaks in their areas.

Football is a sport of resilience, of perseverance. For the coaches and players of the FAC, MVL, TVC-Ohio, and TVC-Hocking, this offseason has tested those attributes again and again in a fashion not seen in recent memory. Exactly what this upcoming season will look like is anyone’s guess, but one thing’s for certain: it will not look like the one nine months ago in Village Park Stadium.