In a normal world, Lake Stevens High School football coach Tom Tri would have spent Monday afternoon conducting a video session with his powerhouse Vikings, before hitting the field for walkthroughs as the team prepared for its season opener against Eastlake.
Instead, Tri was relegated to leading his players through video workouts over Zoom.
No, those Friday night lights won’t be popping on any time soon.
Friday is when the 2020 high school football season was originally scheduled to begin. However, the coronavirus pandemic forced a rethink, with the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) taking the unprecedented step of moving fall sports, including football, into March and April.
And that has the area’s football coaches trying to figure out how best to adapt.
“Right now there’s a huge void,” Tri said. “I’m still in contact with all my assistant coaches, we’re constantly texting back and forth things like, ‘We’d be in two-a-days,” or, ‘Today we would have had our scrimmage,’ or, ‘We would be preparing for Eastlake right now.’ We’re all missing it, we’re missing the kids and the camaraderie of getting together and preparing for games. I was telling our defensive coordinator the other day that this is the first time in 40-plus years where I haven’t been involved in two-a-days or practice getting ready for games in late August and early September. It’s an odd feeling.”
On July 21 the WIAA announced its revised plans for the 2020-21 school year due to the pandemic. That included moving football, which is considered a high-risk sport for the potential spread of coronavirus because of its large number of participants and high level of contact, into the late winter and early spring. The season is now set for practices to start Feb. 17, with games beginning the week of March 5. The seven-week regular season continues through April 17, with the postseason taking place April 19 to May 8.
The new schedule was a lot for coaches to swallow.
“At this point, with everything that’s going on, something is better than nothing,” was Marysville Pilchuck coach Brandon Carson’s reaction to the change. “You saw with the spring sports athletes, they had their season canceled, there was no chance to make it up. This gives us an opportunity to actually get some games in. Yeah, it won’t be a normal season, but at this point I think a lot of people would take anything.”
Therefore, the time of year usually set aside for football is now being limited to coaches gazing at computer screens as players use whatever equipment is available at home — whether it’s weights or cinder blocks or paint cans or backpacks full of books — as a makeshift weight room.
“We did our whole spring football through Zoom,” Glacier Peak coach Shane Keck said. “We did installs and had position meetings and team meetings. Then we broke the team up into small groups and each coach has a couple kids they were touching base with, and we were doing some leadership stuff with the seniors. Trying to stay in touch is the hardest part of the whole process. Such a big part of football is the camaraderie and the connection kids get. Not being able to do that part is a challenge, especially for the kids.”
One consequence is coaches are having a harder time keeping players engaged.
“The mood and attitude I get is that the kids are hanging in there, but struggling with being motivated and really seeing the bigger picture of having the opportunity to play in March,” Tri said. “They recognize that we’re at the end of summer and we always had the weight room, speed and agility drills, seven-on-sevens, and now they’re not doing those things. It’s tougher for them, I’m not seeing as many smiles or that genuine infectious spirit kids have in August as they’re starting to prepare for the season. It’s not terrible, but they’re itching to get back out and be together.”
“I think there’s disappointment for sure,” Keck added. “Most of these kids who are seniors, this will be the last time they play football in their lives. A few will play in college, but the majority hopefully had 10 games to get pads on, then would be done forever. I think that’s the hardest part.
“They’re all hungry to get out there. We all think back to being 16, 17, 18 and how much energy we had. Football is a big part of these kids expressing their energy — in a positive way.”
The WIAA has set aside the period from Sept. 28 to Nov. 30 as an allowable coaching period, where teams can conduct 20 practices as an equivalent of spring or summer camp. However, coaches don’t yet know what those practices will look like, as coronavirus restrictions on practice are yet to be determined.
And will the season be able to happen in March and April? The WIAA’s plan states counties must be in Phase 3 of the state’s four-phase reopening plan to begin practices on Feb. 17, and in Phase 4+ to begin playing games. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee put an indefinite hold on counties moving ahead in phases on July 28. Snohomish County is currently in Phase 2, and there’s no guarantee the county will achieve the necessary phases in time for the rescheduled football season.
But coaches remain hopeful a season will eventually be played.
“I’m being optimistic,” Carson said. “Especially in this county, we keep seeing improvement in the data points, so I believe we’ll have something.”