Coaches cautious, but eager, to get high school athletes back to work

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COLUMBUS (WCMH) — COVID-19 has cost athletes their seasons, and in many cases, tested social relationships. Social distancing creates natural challenges for team sports like football.

“I think that’s the part that we’ve missed. We don’t realize how important that is until you don’t have it anymore,” said Gahanna head coach Bruce Ward.  

Desales head coach Ryan Wiggins has not seen his players since mid-March.

“Getting together to do anything at this point is exciting,” Wiggins said. “We haven’t really had any good news for a while.”

Ward, like most of his central Ohio high school football coaching peers, are cautiously preparing plans for their athletes to return to their schools for training sessions. Technically, athletes were permitted back at schools as early as May 26, but nearly all Ohio schools have waited to prepare a thorough health and safety plan. Many schools plan to open to athletes Monday, June 1, while others will wait until later in June.

“We’re going to have to be very, very careful and cautious moving forward to make sure that we do it right because everybody wants to play,” said Hilliard Bradley coach Mike LoParo. “This isn’t something where you just say, ‘Hey we’re back at it . . . just bring everyone back.’ There’s got to be definite protocol that goes behind how we do it.”

Schools have been advised by the OHSAA and National Federation of High Schools to break athletes into small groups of nine to 10 and keep them well distanced. Those athletes would stay together through at least the first phase of conditioning. Students will not have access to locker rooms. Many schools say they’ll likely avoid using the weight room early in June, focusing on outdoor conditioning and skill work.

The guidelines also call for significant sanitation measures of equipment and facilities before and after every group workout. Phase two of that process would allow coaches to bring in a group of up to 50 athletes at a time in outdoor facilities.

Most coaches, like Nate Hillerich at Pickerington North, emphasize starting this process slowly. He says some of his athletes have home gyms and are in excellent shape, while others have had access to little or no equipment.

“We’re trying to get ready for a football game at the end of August, so we can take our time and go slow,” Hillerich said.

Longtime Hilliard Darby coach John Santagata agrees with the slow approach, hoping it increases the chances of a season.

“Hopefully when it comes to August around the state of Ohio, especially in Columbus, we’re healthy and then maybe we get the green light to play some football, which is so important to so many people,” Santagata said.

The workouts will include health checks before any athlete can participate. Ward says it will be strictly enforced at Gahanna.

“We will check every kid in asking those questions,” he said. “We sent communication home to parents that they should be monitoring their kids’ health, take their temperature before they send them to work out and as they come in, we’ll ask them those questions.”

This planning is designed to get athletes back into conditioning, making sure they’re physically ready to compete in football and other sports this fall. What’s unclear is how an actual football season, or even a practice, can be conducted with the current distancing guidelines.

“You can exercise really as much as you want, but there’s sport-specific training that has to occur,” Santagata said. “Your body has to get accustomed to the grind, and that’s true for any sport.”

Wiggins agrees, and wonders how prepared players will really be if a season happens.

“We’re going to have to block each other and tackle each other and learn schemes and do all the things if we’re going to be prepared to play football,” he said. “Exercising only goes so far.”

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