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Texas rides roller-coaster fall season
By Sarah Hornaday TheAthleticsDepartment.com
Despite COVID-19 concerns, the University Interscholastic League football season started on schedule in August, the season just didn’t start with everybody.
When people look back on the 2020 football season, they’ll see a small percentage of varsity games cancelled or forfeited and thousands of COVID-19 cases. What will be harder to see looking back will be stress and hard work put into the season.
“The only way to explain (the season) was it was a roller coaster,” Longview Spring Hill head football coach and athletics director Weston Griffis said. “It was tough on everybody. It’s my personality to be a routine guy. And at times, we got out of our routines.”
The regular season concluded Nov. 7. Every week coaches were wondering if they will have a game at the end of the week. Or will they have all their players. Or even all their staff. They can work hard keeping kids safe, while they’re in their care, but have no control over their decisions outside of school or even those of their family.
“I constantly worry,” Holliday athletics director and head football coach Frank Johnson said. “It’s been tiring.”
Texas High School Coaches Association executive director Joe Martin is concerned about the toll this school year will have on coaches and their staff.
“The thing that goes unnoticed is how much extra time and effort it takes just to practice, much less play a game,” Martin said. “They’re spent mentally and physically. I hope it’s not a huge exodus from the profession.”
Martin and THSCA met with the UIL to come up with protocol so that athletics could continue as normal, or as normal as possible during a pandemic. Texas is one of 35 states that played football in the fall instead of cancelling the season or postponing it until the Spring.
“We were happy to get to play in June. We were just focused on allowing strength and conditioning, so they would be prepared if we played,” Martin said. “Now as the season has progressed, it’s human nature to want more, now the goal is to crown a champion.”
In the first four weeks of the UIL Class 4A-2A football season, 172 varsity games were canceled. The worst week for cancellations was week four when 23.41 percent of the week’s games were canceled. That number quickly dropped as teams began district play and postponing was the first option before canceling. Overall, only 12.6 percent of the games were cancelled or forfeited, but a lot of games weren’t even scheduled. There were 21 percent less games played in 2020 compared to 2019.
“It was a daily thing,” Olney athletics director and head football coach Jody Guy said. “You didn’t know what school was going to cancel today. You didn’t know what you had to do today to get by. Or what kid needed to be quarantined. What’s going to happen today? What adjustments need to be made today?”
With schools playing in the state semifinals this week, 16 of the 360 football playoff games (4.44 percent), so far have been forfeited. And all but two of those games were forfeited in the first round. Now, the state will see if the largest classifications, Class 5A and 6A, can have the same success.
Both team tennis and volleyball successfully crowned champions. Team tennis had 22 of its 378 playoff matches (5.8 percent) forfeited and volleyball, which will crown a 5A and 6A champion on Dec. 12, had 11 of its first 690 playoff games forfeited (1.6 percent).
“When you consider in June, July and August we weren’t ever sure we’d play… That’s a huge success,” Martin said. “The coaches and their staff have gone through the ringer to keep people safe.”
Coaches rearranged locker rooms, so that if an athlete was exposed to COVID-19, they possibly wouldn’t get another athlete in the same sport or same position exposed. If the school didn’t have enough locker room space for such protocols, players would be shuttled in at different times to use the locker room.
There’s cleaning before practice. And cleaning after practice. Some smaller schools went to the extreme of having players car pool in small groups to games instead of having everyone on the same bus. Or like in Holliday’s case, it used an extra bus.
And after all the effort is put into preparing for the game, the game isn’t guaranteed. Spring Hill, a 4A school 120 miles East of Dallas, lost two opponents due to cancellation in two weeks, but quickly found replacements. Three weeks later, the Panthers forfeited two district games because of COVID and played only eight games in the 11-week regular season.
Sweetwater head football coach and athletics director Ben McGehee quickly turned skeptical concerning the 2020 season when he had two teams cancel on him in the season’s second week. “At that point it worried me that that would be more of the routine,” McGehee said. “That it would be a fight each week to find a game for your guys.”
Sweetwater, a Class 4A school two hours south of Lubbock, had Tuscola Jim Ned scheduled for the season’s second week, only to learn on Wednesday before the Friday game that Jim Ned had players testing positive. McGehee took to Twitter and the phones to find a replacement. Brownsboro, a 4A school 300 miles away, had a similar problem. The two schools decided to meet approximately halfway and play in Aledo. On Friday morning, that game too was canceled with no chance of yet another replacement.
“I just wanted to the kids an opportunity to compete,” McGehee said. “It didn’t matter the lack of preparation (for a specific opponent). We were ready to play on the fly. The way the kids worked; they deserved the opportunity to play.”
The season quickly settled down for Sweetwater. It just canceled one more game _ a non-district game against Eastland _ so it could move up the district schedule and leave the last week open for possible postponed district games.
Looking for games was the trend in 2020. Subvarsity games were not only cancelled directly because of COVID-19, but indirectly. Like when Johnson stopped the Holliday junior varsity’s bus from leaving because he needed the players to play for the varsity the next day.
Holliday, a 3A school located 15 miles West of Wichita Falls, only missed one varsity game, when Nocona forfeited a district game, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any drama to its season. The Eagles went the majority of the season without a full staff due to quarantines. Johnson was constantly on the hunt for subvarsity games. And then, there was the week his junior varsity played for his varsity.
“You work to death and all of a sudden you don’t get to play,” Johnson said. “You don’t know when a kid’s going to get quarantined.”
Holliday superintendent Cody Carroll told Johnson he had to quarantine most of his varsity after close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID on a Thursday. During the meeting, he called an assistant coach to stop the junior varsity bus leaving for White Settlement. The junior varsity only had 15 minutes left in the athletics period to do a walkthrough and then the coaches gathered, not for game strategy, but first they needed to know if they had all the positions filled and who was filling them.
The junior varsity players came through the next day as Holliday beat Valley View, 8-6. Most of the varsity players that sat out did so for just one game. The players were simply in close contact and ultimately only three had to quarantine.
“I think I have the only JV in America with letter jackets,” Johnson said. The coach even had the junior varsity players’ names engraved on the varsity district championship trophy. “They earned a piece of it.”
Ben Bolt-Palito Blanco, a Class 2A school located 70 miles West of Corpus Christi, didn’t have as much luck with COVID-19 as Holliday. The Badgers played only two games before COVID-19 ended their season, which also didn’t get started on time because of COVID-19 concerns.
Though playing only two games wasn’t the norm, Ben Bolt-Palito Blanco definitely wasn’t alone in experiencing a shortened season. This season 362 of the UIL’s 588 Class 4A-2A varsity football teams (61.6 percent) experienced at least one game canceled or forfeited. And 33 schools or 6 percent lost more than two games.
Schools in larger metropolitan areas were more limited by city and county health officials than in smaller areas. This reality made the University Interscholastic League’s delayed start of fall sports for Class 5A and 6A schools a better opportunity for those schools to have a complete season.
Unfortunately, this problem wasn’t limited to the largest schools. San Antonio Young Men’s Leadership Academy wasn’t able to start until October, just like Houston Independent School District and Dallas Independent School District’s Class 4A schools. Even Ben Bolt-Palito Blanco had this problem.
The Badgers played two games this season before cancelling the regular-season finale and forfeiting their playoff game. Two might not seem like a lot, but in August, the Badgers weren’t sure they would get to play any.
Ben Bolt-Palito Blanco head football coach and athletics director Gary Cunningham is grateful for the chance to play considering he spent most of September thinking that the Badgers wouldn’t.
“We were tickled to death,” Cunningham said of the season. “You can whine, moan or cry about what you didn’t get to have or look what we got. At least we got to get out there for a little while. It’s all how you look at it.”
Jim Wells County Judge Juan Rodriguez ruled that in-person school would not start on time. And only a unanimous school board decision could overrule the decision. Before a vote, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the judge didn’t have the authority. The coach was already prepared to go before the school board, so he went ahead with the plans.
The school board had hypothetical questions he couldn’t answer about his opponents and sidelined the Badgers season when it decided to stay virtual for the first nine weeks of the school year allowing no time for the football team to play during the 11-week football regular season.
The rest of Jim Wells County went on with football, Orange Grove started on time on Aug. 28, Premont began Sept. 11 and Alice started Oct. 1. Five weeks after the school board’s decision, the Badgers got a reprieve and started the season on Oct. 16.
Coaches have been supportive of each other by being flexible with game schedules and sharing information. McGehee fielded calls from his coaching friends in Class 5A and 6A and gave tips on how to navigate the season. Ben Bolt-Palito Blanco’s district opponents accommodated its situation by going to a “zone schedule” for district games. The five-team district separated into zones, so that Ben Bolt-Palito Blanco wouldn’t have to forfeit any district games.
It was the only 2A district with this type of scheduling which is most often used by a nine or 10-team district to allow a school more non-district opponents.
“Our district was awesome,” Cunningham said. “They didn’t redo the schedule until we were able to play.”
COVID-19 certainly made 2020 a challenge, but this football season had just as many breakthrough seasons as in year’s past. This season, North Dallas made its first playoff appearance since 1952. Eleven different Class 4A-2A schools broke playoff droughts of more than five years this season including Olney.
Olney (5-5) won more games this season than it had in the previous eight seasons combined. The Cubs were dedicated to turning around their fortune. The team made progress with strength and conditioning during the summer and was ready to go for the beginning of fall practice in August.
“It was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Guy said. “(Making the playoffs) wasn’t a huge surprise. It was something they worked for.”
Guy sold his team on “staying inside their bubble.” He asked his players to give up trips to see out-of-town relatives. And socialize with a small group of friends. This, plus hard work on the field paid off in 2020. Olney, located 100 miles West of Fort Worth, wasn’t without COVID concerns, but it never cancelled a varsity game.
“There’s no way to keep kids away from other kids,” Guy said. “Kids think they are invincible. We just preached to kids to stay in their bubble.”
While Olney’s season for a 2020 feel-good story, Junction and Coleman’s stories were heartbreaking. Look back in the UIL playoff history and you won’t find Junction (5-5) or Coleman (6-4). Both teams qualified for the playoffs, but gave up its playoff spots to another district team who wasn’t sidelined by COVID-19 in the regular season’s final week.
“It was the right thing to do to have a representative of our district in the playoffs,” Junction coach John Contrucci said. “It hurts deeply that we were not able to participate in the playoffs. You have sorrow for your kids and your community, but ultimately we’re in the business of kids.”
Junction considered playing with 13 players, but ultimately decided it wouldn’t be safe and passed its playoff opportunity to Miles.
The games, the wins, the community support gets a lot of attention when talking about school sports. Teamwork, leadership, dealing with different personalities, working towards a goal whether personally or as a team are all things learned in sports. This season had coaches teaching more than X’s and O’s more than ever.
“(In September), during our athletic period, we spent time talking about character and how to handle adversity,” Cunningham said of his Ben Bolt-Palito Blanco Badgers. “It was kind of a good teaching time.”
Griffis tried to keep his Spring Hill Panthers focused on what they could control. Junction did the same. The team’s motto for the season was “attack the challenge in front of you.” “We learn lessons from athletics and we take those lessons forward in life,” Contrucci said. “I’m thankful for our season and all the things we accomplished. One game doesn’t define who they are. I’m extremely proud of them.”