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The high school spring football season from player, coach and parent perspectives

 

Fall Friday nights across the country have grown synonymous with high school football being played under the lights. The pandemic turned those lights off in fall 2020 in some states, but they stayed on in others. The Virginia High School League (VHSL) opted to stay dark for the fall, but turned the lights on in spring 2021 for a shortened, six-game regular season with playoffs.

For many, the spring football season was a saving grace and an escape from the monotonous and sedentary lifestyle that online school brought. It fostered positive and negative experiences — and COVID-19 testing results — and a multitude of lessons that were learned along the season’s rocky journey by players and coaches at multiple Fairfax County high schools.

One difference between a regular season and the spring season that was felt right away by Centreville High School Head Coach Jon Shields, Westfield High School Head Coach Kyle Simmons and Defensive Coordinator Jeremiah Davis was the weather, they all said. Instead of starting out warm with more daylight and ending cold with less daylight, the reverse happened in the spring season.

“We were clearing snow before the first practice [and] snow before the first game,” Shields said. “But thank goodness for turf fields, right?”

South Lakes Head Coach Jason Hescock said the biggest thing he noticed from playing in the spring were injuries at the beginning of the season, which he attributed to the lack of being able to work out in a weight room during the offseason. He said his coaching staff, when protocols allowed, tried to recreate a weight room experience outside on their field, but just setting it up took 45 minutes.

Hescock said, among other injuries, that some players had hip and groin issues as well as shin splints. He said one South Lakes player missed his entire junior campaign because of stress fractures that were developed over the nine months of inactivity, compacted with missing out on a normal preseason ramp-up period that camps and two-a-day practices provide.

“Just getting up every 80 minutes to walk to your next class and walking up and down stairs during a normal school day does things to your body,” Hescock said. “When kids were sitting down all day, we started to notice a bunch of [injuries], as crazy as that sounds. It was debilitating for some kids.”

The gameday experience was also something in the spring that “felt a lot different,” Westfield rising senior defensive back Joe George said. At the beginning of the season, the number of people allowed inside a given stadium couldn’t exceed 250 individuals or 50 percent of the stadium’s capacity, which took into account players, coaches and officials. But as the season progressed, teams started to allow student sections and parents at games. Discounting the accessories, the intensity of the game inside the white lines felt the same, George said.

Without the normal pomp of gameday and the buildup for each game that’s experienced in the halls at school, Nolan Riley, Chantilly High School linebacker and graduate and Shenandoah University football commit, said it made Chantilly stronger because they had to turn their focus intrinsically among fellow teammates and coaches. He said having no fans at games in the beginning of the season was the best thing for the team because with no outside noise or energy to lean on, football became about loving the game.

“We weren’t playing for [the] glory of playing for fans or parents or scouts or coaches,” Riley said. “We were playing for each other.”

At South Lakes, Hescock said they added a “COVID coach” for each game this season to make sure the players were following protocols, like staying six feet apart and drinking from their own water bottles. At Westfield, Simmons said following guidelines on gameday was more “on your honor” for each player and coach. But during practice, Simmons was known to be the “COVID coach,” he said, because he was in charge of checking all the players’ COVID-19 check-in forms to monitor symptoms and for spraying down equipment. He said since he wasn’t coaching a position group this spring, he took the brunt of handling COVID-19 logistics so his assistant coaches could concentrate more on coaching.

CJ Hoffman, Westfield linebacker and graduate and Howard University football commit, said practices as a whole weren’t only different because of COVID-19 protocols, but they were also much longer. Because Fairfax County teams weren’t allowed to gather in large groups inside their respective high schools for the majority of the year, Hoffman said the team had to go home quickly after practice, eat, shower and get on Zoom to go over practice film with their position groups instead of inside classrooms at Westfield.

“The time between ending practice, getting home and starting film at the end of the day,” Hoffman said, “you’d leave your house at 3 p.m. and you’d be done with football at 9 p.m.”

Pandemic protocols also greatly affected the usual bonding time before practice in the locker room, Riley said. He said the team wasn’t allowed to be in the locker room for anything except putting away pads and that coaches would tell players to “hurry up” if they sensed lingering.

Locker rooms were also divided in order to maintain space. At Chantilly, the locker room is multiple stories, with JV players downstairs and varsity players upstairs, Riley said. In a normal year, however, he said the two teams are right next to each other. At Westfield, outside linebacker and graduate Jacob Susko said the team utilized the girls’ locker room and was spread out in its entirety to keep as much distance as possible. At Centreville, Shields said it was more “SYA-style” with how players put on their pants and pads on the field, similar to how it’s done with youth football organizations like Southwestern Youth Association (SYA) and Chantilly Youth Association (CYA).

On the field, similar distancing measures were practiced, Davis said. He said when he’d talk to the defense as a whole at practice, the players would gather in a circle and put their arms out to make sure they weren’t touching anyone. Also, the defense practiced frequently as a whole group by lining up at their respective positions, Davis said, because this meant the players were naturally spaced out. Besides the distancing rules, like breaking position groups in half for individual drills and having to use separate water bottles, George said the practice plan was similar to that of previous years — for that he said he thanks the coaches for keeping practice itself relatively routine.

Even with a routine practice schedule at Westfield, it still wasn’t easy, Simmons said, to accommodate to all the guidelines VHSL and Fairfax County asked for. Quite simply, the new normal skewed far from what players and coaches have grown accustomed to at practices and games from previous years. 

“Let’s face it,” Simmons said, “most of the stuff they were asking us to do does not translate to the game of football. Football is a contact sport, and it made it very difficult to do a lot of the things we would normally do.”

One additive that the pandemic brought was equally despised by players: masks.

Teams in the VHSL had to wear masks underneath the helmet both in practices and games. In games, however, some players kept them on the chin because referees didn’t check for them once players were on the field, Susko said. Nevertheless, they were a hassle for many, especially when the elements kicked in.

“It was hard to breathe,” George said about wearing a mask underneath the helmet. “If it was rainy, it got all damp and wet — it was terrible … It was by far the biggest, most annoying thing.”

Toward the end of the season, when the weather got hot at some practices, Davis said it became “really tough” to keep wearing a mask. Eventually, Westfield players got masks that were attached to their helmets and didn’t have to go around the ears, which Simmons said was a “huge help.”

As many hurdles as there were on and off the field this spring, the timing of the season also put a strain on coaches and players returning to the high school field in a few short months, along with those moving on to play at the next level.

Simmons said that due to the quick turnaround between the spring and the upcoming fall season, he’s been trying to prepare himself so he can have all the energy possible in August. Westfield also started its pre-season after-school weightlifting program much sooner than normal because Simmons said his players weren’t having their in-person personal fitness class during the school year — a class that many players on the football team take to lift weights during the school day.

By the same token, Hoffman said he’s been trying to get into the best shape possible after the season going into his freshman campaign at Howard. It was two months between the end of the spring season and his mid-June arrival at Howard for training — a window when Hoffman said he tried to make sure his body was recovered to combat the swift turnaround and play.

Since Hoffman committed to Howard before the spring campaign, he played the whole season with his future endeavor in mind. Riley didn’t commit to Shenandoah until June, so he said he wasn’t thinking about anything this spring other than “putting it all out there for my teammates,” and making the season a “fun last ride” with teammates he’s played with since youth football — many for the last six years, he said.

While Hoffman and Riley got offers in time for the spring season — Riley got his offer for Shenandoah before the season but didn’t commit right away — many seniors in VHSL didn’t get the opportunity to gather interest and play at the collegiate level for two reasons: Firstly, the NCAA allowed all college football programs to grant seniors an extra year of eligibility. Secondly, the high school spring season took place after the early signing period from Dec. 18-20, 2020, and National Signing Day on Feb. 3, 2021 — a “double whammy” of disadvantageous happenings, Simmons said.

Even though many Division I FBS and FCS offers were off the table for seniors who played in the spring, lower-level opportunities presented themselves for many. Shields said 12 of his seniors are going to be playing football at a junior college (JUCO), Division II or Division III program next fall.

“A lot of the kids are going places, so I’m happy about that,” Shields said. “As someone with a recruiting background, that’s really important to me. ”

Despite Chantilly being a regional semi-finalist this spring, Riley said the team only has two seniors playing at the next level in fall 2021 compared to 10 from last year’s team. While he feels empathy for those who aren’t getting the opportunity to play college football, Riley’s options were also limited — he said he didn’t think he had enough options outside of Shenandoah because most schools were done recruiting by the spring. 

“I think a lot of us got screwed,” the Shenandoah commit said.

For teams that played in fall 2020, on the other hand, it was business as usual regarding seniors getting film in time to receive scholarships. To play or not to play a normal fall season was a disputed topic among parents and coaches in the VHSL. Mike Hoffman — father of CJ Hoffman — said he thinks the season could’ve been played in the fall and that it was tough to see so much taken from the players, especially the seniors. Hescock said he believed playing in the spring, with the added protocols, was a “necessary evil” because many of his players lived with first- and second-generation parents. Hescock said he trusted those people “way smarter than me and above my pay grade” that were making decisions to keep kids and families safe.

“It was serious,” Hescock said. “I kept on telling [my players], ‘Maybe it’s not real for you, you may not understand how important it is, or why it’s important, [but] we’re supporting our community by doing the right thing out here.’”

Within the season, two instances among Fairfax County teams stand out as battles with the pandemic’s wrath.

Westfield was slated to play Lake Braddock to open the season. Only problem: All but two of Westfield’s varsity defensive lineman had to quarantine for 14 days because of COVID-19 protocols. They would’ve all been out for the game, but the Bulldogs had a bye week following the Lake Braddock bout, and the Bruins were able to perform some schedule finagling with future opponents who had similar COVID-19 issues to get the game scheduled the following Saturday.

At practice that week, Hoffman said it was much more slow and mentally focused. It was hard to replace the defensive linemen at practice, Davis said, because the two of the replacements just came from the state wrestling tournament, and they had to use offensive linemen or linebackers if they needed a four-man front. 

During the quarantiners’ time away from the field, Davis said he would practice virtually with them at home and go over film. Westfield’s defensive linemen returned to practice the Thursday before Saturday’s game, and the Bulldogs fell, 26-7.

“[The defensive line] was one of our better groups this year, and we were like, ‘They’ll be able to pick it up quick,’” Davis said. “You really realize quickly that there’s no substitution for practice and repetition on the field and the live movement. Because our guys — they battled, and they played as hard as they could, but it was tough to just come out there from sitting at home … and play a game.”

Another instance of COVID-19 crashing regularly scheduled programming came toward the end of South Lakes’ season — only they didn’t have the fortune of rescheduling. The Seahawks missed the last two games of their regular season because of COVID-19 issues within their team, and they went into a first-round playoff matchup with Chantilly coming off not playing any games — or practicing — for two weeks.

Since they had more power points — the points system that VHSL uses to seed playoff teams largely based on quality of opponents — South Lakes hosted the game with a record of 3-1. However, the home-field advantage was negated by the Seahawks’ lack of practice, and they lost to the 5-1 Chargers, 7-0.

“Those two weeks, we couldn’t pick up a football,” Hescock said. “I encouraged the guys to keep doing at home workouts because we couldn’t meet. We encouraged guys to keep doing some stuff on their own if they could, but again, for two weeks, we didn’t get a chance to practice, and basically came off a two-week break and played a playoff game.”

Chantilly, despite the win over South Lakes, had a different perspective on the game. Riley said Chantilly was primed to finally have a home playoff game during a season in which they beat Westfield for the first time in 10 years and beat Centreville two years in a row. With restrictions starting to lift on spectators in late spring, he said Chantilly’s stadium would’ve been rocking because “there was that buzz” at school.

“We were pissed that we were not going to get a home playoff game,” Riley said. “Once we got into [South Lakes’] stadium, we were all good, but when we were winning, we looked around, and our student section outnumbered their student section … We were like, ‘This is so stupid. If you had given us a home playoff game, we would’ve filled our stadium to capacity.’”

Even with Virginia rolling back COVID-19 restrictions as the spring season neared a close, Riley said his coach, Sean Curry, told the team to “pod up” if they traveled anywhere. Riley was only allowed to hang out with his football friends outside of practice, he said.

Having friend bubbles, or pods, was a common occurrence throughout the pandemic among athletes and normal high schoolers alike. In fall 2020, all offseason work had to be individualized as it was against COVID-19 protocols for VHSL football teams to have organized offseason activities. During this time, Mike Hoffman said CJ had to work out and hang out with the same group of people when preparing for the up-in-the-air season.

Among other Westfield teammates, Hoffman said he did a lot of offseason field work at E.C. Lawrence Park with George. With Westfield football starting morning weightlifting sessions June 21, George said it hasn’t hit him yet that he’s entering his senior year after the whirlwind experience that was playing high school football amid a pandemic.

“It’s crazy,” George said. “Now it’s ‘I’m a senior, I’ve got to be a leader.’”

The spring season provided an opportunity for many players like George to tune-up for senior seasons, but the approach to the season was played differently by coaches. Hescock said he used the spring season to play at times eight seniors on both sides of the ball — South Lakes is normally a platoon team, he said, meaning players only play on either offense or defense. Since the season was shorter, fatigue wasn’t as big of a factor, and Hescock said it allowed him to put the best product on the field — a philosophy that rewarded many seniors with more playing time. 

Looking ahead to a normal fall season, Davis played “something like 30 different guys on defense,” which he said will be used as a launching pad for many returning players into the offseason camps this summer and leading into August practices. He said it was “amazing” how many people stepped up, especially in the secondary, considering the turnover from that senior-laden area of the defense in 2019.

There were ups from the spring football experience, and there were downs. But through it all, lessons were learned that’ll help players and coaches alike for years to come, and friendships that Riley said he hopes will last for “50 years.” Due to the lack of social interaction for many during the pandemic, Davis said he learned the importance of building relationships with players, and that “when you care about someone, it’s just different.” 

Hescock said despite the season being a struggle and that it “wasn’t real football,” you have to look at the positives. 

“A lot of these kids just really needed some type of face-to-face interaction, to be around friends again,” Hescock said. “There’s not a lot of games that have so many different sizes, abilities, body types, all working together to accomplish a goal. If anything, you see that in life, [and] you see that in football.”

This spring season capped off a Chantilly career for Riley that created a “family of guys,” he said, that won’t ever be replicated. Above all, he said he was at least happy he got to share the field with them one last time — despite the imperfect circumstances.

“They’re my best friends,” Riley said. “We’ve fought, we’ve argued, laughed, bled, cried together. I just hope I can keep these friendships going.”

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