This year, Labor Day takes on an added significance in the high school football community, as Monday marks the first time programs in Classes 5A and 6A can begin fall practices.
And with that moment, expect a palpable energy all day at various campuses around the Metroplex as teams enjoy one of the biggest steps of their respective offseasons.
“I think our kids are looking forward to each day that we practice. They come ready and with lots of energy,” said Terry Gambill, Allen head coach. “They’re coachable and are doing the things needed to start forming a football team.”
That process accelerates this week as teams look to build off nearly three full months of strength and conditioning workouts, as well as sport-specific training sessions. Although football wasn’t in season when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the springtime high school sports calendar in March, teams missed out on a pivotal juncture of the offseason after having spring workouts cancelled.
That period is typically a crucial one for coaches for evaluating personnel, installing schemes and getting to do so in something that approximates a game-time environment — full pads, offense versus defense, and so forth. Throughout the summer, players were relegated to working out in T-shirts and shorts and any contact during drills was prohibited up until July 8. The coming weeks allow coaches to make up for lost time.
“It’s going to be enormous. Missing those 18 practices in the spring is a big deal, particularly in evaluating your young kids and our structure in Plano is so unique with the ninth- and 10th-grade campuses, we don’t get to see those until now,” said Tyler Soukup, Plano West head coach. “We haven’t had a chance to evaluate them as football players. You can evaluate them running 40s, lifting weights and doing agility and skill work, but you really don’t know who a football player until you put on a helmet and shoulder pads and can see who plays with that same intensity and focus.”
Teams beginning fall practices this week will go through a five-day acclimatization period before full equipment and full contact are allowed. On the fifth day of that timeframe, players can wear helmets, shoulder pads and girdles, and person-to-person contact is allowed.
Teams will have to do so while adhering to the UIL’s protocols for combatting the pandemic, with all participants required to wear masks when not actively participating in a practice drill, as well as complying with social distancing and taking proper hygienic measures.
“There are times when contact is going to be involved, but we’re just trying to minimize it as much as possible,” said Brian Basil, Flower Mound head coach. “When you’re running a drill and getting back in line, we have cones so they’ll still be 6 feet apart in line. We have huddles more spread out. We’re finding different ways to do things and our guys are learning that, but the closer we get to the season the closer it feels like a routine.”
It’s something programs were able to familiarize themselves with when strength and conditioning workouts began on June 8. Those continued through Aug. 3 before the UIL afforded teams an increase to two hours of daily sport-specific training, which stays in effect through Sunday for all sports.
“To be able to maintain our workouts throughout the summer and the UIL allowing us to have some skill work, it’s been really good to continue the process of getting better,” Basil said. “Without having spring football, you’re behind and getting a chance to install our offensive and defensive packages just so you get the Xs and Os part down has been great. We’re only in T-shirts but we can still get out there and install our schemes so when we do get the pads on, we’ll be farther along.”
Coaches at the 5A and 6A levels don’t have to look far to gauge early returns on how football teams across the state are navigating the pandemic season. The UIL allowed schools in its four smallest classifications, 1A-4A, to begin practices on Aug. 3, which led up to the start of the regular season on Aug. 27.
“I’ve got two coaches that were on my staff the last couple of years, Antonio Wiley at Hirschi and Tommy Poynter at Wills Point, so I’ve been keeping up with them and seeing how they’re doing,” said Michael Odle, Lewisville head coach. “Even as a high school football fan in general, you’re checking to see how things are going and any of the good, bad and in between with football and COVID. We’ve got our eyes on it and hoping and praying that everything goes well.”
Once fall practices begin Monday at the 5A and 6A levels, those schools can conduct scrimmages on Sept. 17-19 before beginning the regular season on Sept. 24-26.
“I’m thrilled that we’re playing ball and can’t wait to just get out there and scrimmage somebody,” said Chris Cunningham, Prestonwood Christian head coach. “It was exciting watching it this weekend, seeing high school teams across the country playing, and knowing that with every week that if we do a little more, do it right and stay safe, it gives us another week and establishes a little more so we can get this season under our belt.”