Prep Football

10 questions as Iowa high school football practice begins this week

Coronavirus pandemic leads to temporary changes and possibly long-term changes, too

Marion football players huddle during practice last August. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Marion football players huddle during practice last August. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Football season begins Monday. Iowa High School Athletic Association programs across the state will begin practice. Like summer sports, this fall will be a different experience as coaches, players, officials, administrators and fans manage the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are 10 questions about the upcoming football season.

1. Why have a football season?

The initial reaction to the completed baseball and softball seasons is both were successful. A large percentage of teams played without suspension. Reported positive cases appeared to be isolated. There were no reported outbreaks within programs. Positive cases reported were not attributed to player-to-player, coach-to-player or team-to-team transmission.

If a season can be conducted safely, then why not? Football could provide players and coaches with a much needed sense of normalcy.

The sport can be a key development tool for many athletes. Structure, discipline, resilience, fun and teamwork are intangibles that are taught.

Football unites. For nine fall weeks, communities shut down for an evening and come together on Friday nights. Maybe that’s an argument to eliminate the season and avoid large gatherings, actually, but could be just with the proper precautions and limitations in place.

2. How can a physical sport avoid a virus spread by close contact?

I’m not so sure avoiding positive coronavirus cases is the goal or practical. Like baseball and softball, the question won’t be if there are positive cases and a team is shut down, but when. The goal is mitigation and eliminating any outbreaks. It appeared to work in the summer.

Social distancing is virtually impossible in a contact sport, especially for linemen and defenders. Coaches attempt to enforce it when doable. Cedar Rapids Jefferson and Marion have altered warmups to space out players. Coaches have been instructed to stay 6 feet apart during interactions with officials, coaches and players.

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Pregame and postgame rituals will be altered. No handshakes before or after competition. The mock coin toss will be whittled down to a referee, umpire and one representative from each team.

Recommendations include smaller pods of players to avoid large clusters in a small area. Cedar Rapids Kennedy has restricted practice segments to 15 minutes or less, attempting to limit extended exposure to others.

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Preventive measures are vital. Players will go through daily screenings. Those with symptoms will talk with a coach, trainer or both to assess the situation. Sick players will be asked to go home and not attend functions.

The emphasis will be on sanitizing. Players that do attend daily meetings will be greeted with sanitizer. Cleaning shared equipment is key as well. Kennedy managers use a disinfectant spray from Ridell, wiping down used equipment.

Some teams have issued face coverings for players to wear during practice and games, while Marion Coach Tim Lovell said players will take their pads home for daily cleaning, instead of leaving them in lockers.

Also, facilities will be sanitized after each game. Areas like the benches and locker rooms to the concession stands and bleachers will be cleaned thoroughly.

Positive cases are inevitable with players being in close contact after being exposed to schoolmates all day. I believe the focus is limiting COVID-19 impacts.

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3. How will individual positive cases and outbreaks be handled?

As stated before, players who share any symptoms during regular reporting will be asked to refrain from attending functions. Testing could follow if symptoms persist.

During baseball and softball, positive tests resulted in a 14-day suspension and quarantine, forcing teams to halt organized workouts. Anyone the team came in contact with were notified. Programs will rely on the guidance of their county public health departments.

Outbreaks could wipe out an entire season, as we saw in the summer when positive cases emerged late in the year.

Teams will attempt to mitigate transmission. Kennedy will attempt to separate players by position to avoid exposure to other position players, attempting to prevent the spread.

4. How have participation levels been impacted?

Football has seen a decline in participation numbers in recent years. Many attribute that to concussion fears. There is a reasonable perception that the coronavirus could affect levels as well.

The fear of contracting the disease and possibly spreading it to older loved ones, who are more at-risk, remains. Jefferson and Marion both noted an increase of about 30 players in their programs.

 
 

Cedar Rapids Prairie Coach Mark Bliss noted numbers were a strength for this season in a preseason questionnaire, while Edgewood-Colesburg Coach James Rochford noted his roster was bigger than last year’s 7-3 team that made the first round of the playoffs.

Teams like Cedar Rapids Washington and North Linn remain constant and haven’t lost any players due to the pandemic.

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Some may opt not to play due to the pandemic. With many athletes not getting the opportunity to be active for months, the opposite could be true for football (and other fall sports). The chance to compete and socialize might be attracting more athletes.

There is another thing to keep in mind as well. Due to the switch to online curriculum in the spring and the disruption of in-class learning, normal eligibility guidelines are not enforced this fall. With academic ineligibility lifted, some players may get an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise.

5. What are the temporary in-game changes?

In addition to the pregame and postgame rituals, the contests will have some differences as well. One of the more noticeable changes will be mandatory timeouts every four minutes, allowing teams to sanitize and hydrate. Breaks between quarters will be extended slightly for more cleaning and water.

More interruptions could occur as officials are recommended to switch out and clean the football with every fourth down.

Players and coaches will be asked to spread out on the sideline, stretching to the 10-yard line on each end of the field. Previously, teams were confined between the 35-yard lines.

Officials and coaches have been told to maintain a 6-foot distance from others during interactions.

Spitting is outlawed and water cannot be used for anything besides drinking.

Some players will don masks, while gloves (already widely use) could be more prevalent by players of all positions.

Fewer bodies will be on the sidelines as well. The IHSAA has ruled that only essential personnel are permitted on the field of play.

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6. How will schools handle attendance and crowd control?

This is still being determined. Conferences and schools handled things differently during the summer. It will likely be a similar approach this fall, leaving it up to each school or district to determine its own procedure.

Mississippi Valley Conference programs allotted three tickets per player. Others removed or closed bleachers to avoid fans congregating in small spaces. Fans were encouraged to wear masks, especially when entering, exiting and moving around the facility.

Football crowds are usually larger and more diverse in ages. Student sections are usually congested and fans move about freely. It will make it difficult to oversee and enforce rules.

If there are any attendance caps or social-distancing rules, they will likely vary from school to school.

7. Will football games be able to maintain the same festive atmosphere?

Football games have an energetic and exciting feel unlike any other sport. Much of it is generated by the game, but it also comes from the crowd. Students, family, fans, the band and cheerleaders add to the climate.

 
 

A lot of this depends on school policy. If students and fans are able to attend, even with limits, the band can continue to be part of the event and cheerleaders are allowed to champion spirit then I think the experience will remain similar to the past.

If things are altered drastically, removing the factors that surround the field, then it won’t be the same. Many would consider it an acceptable trade in lieu of games with hopes it isn’t permanent.

8. Will coronavirus protocol take time away from coaches teaching the game and proper technique?

The answer is simply, “No.” Coaches are not going to sacrifice fundamentals, even if time is at a premium due to extra responsibilities.

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Jefferson Coach Chris Buesing said practices won’t change much. Coaching and instruction shouldn’t be impacted. Most of the additional tasks are done before and after practice. The situation may even help coaches in the long run. During the break, Lovell and the Marion staff examined their approach, holding regular Zoom meetings during the lockdown. They reviewed different styles and refined things. Players were prepared and coaches were more organized for the preseason camp. The product was smoothly-run sessions.

Lovell also noted that due to the possibility of a coach being quarantined by a positive test that the Marion staff developed hierarchy, so if a coach goes now a backup can seamlessly step into the role.

9. How will football in Iowa be changed by out-of-state transfers?

Iowa’s prep football landscape was affected immediately when other states announced they would postpone football until spring. Highly-touted offensive lineman and long snapper Domenic Virelli of Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park, Ill., shared his intentions to transfer to West Des Moines Dowling the same day Illinois’ decision went public. Landon Nelson, a cornerback from San Luis Obispo, Calif., and Kansas State commit Jake Rubley, a quarterback out of Highlands Ranch, Colo., are transferring to West Des Moines Valley. Rubley is the son of former NFL quarterback and Iowa native T.J. Rubley.

 

Minnesota recently announced it was postponing its season. As players are desperate for one more season and to fill their Hudl videos with highlight clips, more players will begin trickling into the state.

Multiple coaches in the Metro area have said that out-of-state players have contacted them about transferring, but none have done so, yet. Official practices start Monday. Expect more new faces to appear on rosters across the state.

10. Why have all teams qualify for the playoffs? Could it be permanent?

The season was pared down to seven weeks, giving programs the freedom to schedule between five to seven games in that stretch, starting Aug. 27. Essentially, teams in classes A, 1A, 2A and 3A open with two optional weeks and district play. Teams in 4A were able to determine their own schedules, which pretty much brought back the return of MVC competition.

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District play and the RPI system were impacted. Games were eliminated. Teams face possible suspension due to positive coronavirus tests. This change prevents teams from being punished for missed games (no contests instead of forfeits). Six rounds of playoffs with everyone included give teams a chance for nine games, which equals a normal regular season.

It isn’t out of the question that this becomes the norm. We have seen temporary changes stay in place for an extended period of time. If this season is successful and an all-inclusive postseason is well received, we could see this format transform into a fixture.

Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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