On June 8, as high schools around the state began summer workouts, Plano East was content to wait a few more days.
Not for a lack of preparation — head football coach Joey McCullough and his staff had burnt plenty of midnight oil in the weeks prior devising their approach to workouts — but more so wanting to make sure everything was in place before embarking on the most unique offseason of McCullough’s tenure at the school.
“I wanted to make sure we did it right. We still had seven weeks, which is one week longer than we had planned,” McCullough said. “It was my deal of wanting to put it off a week and making sure we put all the UIL protocol and guidelines and do it correctly. All along, my No. 1 priority as an educator and teacher is the safety of my kids and coaches. I thought it was right for us at Plano East.”
The Panthers launched their offseason strength and conditioning program on June 15, exercising anywhere from three to five days a week through the end of July with three daily sessions: a 7 a.m. workout for the school’s underclassmen, a 9 a.m. workout largely comprised of juniors and seniors and an 11:30 a.m. workout for all female student-athletes grades nine through 12.
“We’re going to do this slow and do it right, but I think it’s gone well. I think the kids have responded,” McCullough said. “They were hungry to get back out. We’re all social beings and we all missed each other. It’s hard not to fist bump or hug, but they understand it.
“I had a lot of apprehension and anxiety going into it, but I’m very pleased with what I’m seeing so far. We’ve got to make the best out of it. It’s easy to do things when it’s chocolate and roses but what are you going to do when there’s an adverse situation? I think our kids have responded to that.”
As the first week of UIL-permitted workouts rolled on, McCullough said he took note of how other schools handled things. He mentioned Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s decision to wait on opening his team’s practice facilities.
No matter the timing of the workouts, the adjustments have been the same for every high school in the state — an adherence to social distancing, an emphasis on sanitation, hygiene and keeping equipment clean. The Panthers have been mindful of the guidelines put in place by the UIL, while also hoping their athletes are being mindful of those parameters away from the practice field.
“The biggest challenge is not what we’re doing in there but emphasizing to the kids once they leave here,” McCullough said. “That affects us too, and we want to make sure that we’re allowed to continue to work and do skill work. We have to be socially safe and follow those protocols everywhere if we want to maintain this way of life.”
It’s something plenty of coaching staffs are being mindful of, particularly as schools around the state are being forced to suspend or alter workouts due to a positive coronavirus test from one of its student-athletes. Locally, that list includes programs like Southlake Carroll, Denton Braswell, Denton and Arlington Martin.
As the Panthers soldier on, they’re doing so by easing their athletes back into conditioning after being away from school for three months. On June 18, East rotated four groups around its facility, including one on an outdoor auxiliary field that focused on sprints — not so much encouraging speed but good form and body control.
“We want to make sure we’re physically ready in the weight room and we’re going to steadily build it up as we go,” McCullough said. “That way, we’re physically able — the X’s and O’s are important, but being able to physically perform is more important.”
Whereas most of the Panthers’ first week of workouts was conducted at a simmer, there were some lively moments throughout the morning — most notably during a contest conducted by assistant football coach Nathan Collins where four student-athletes were cheered on by their teammates to see who could complete 20 burpees first.
“It’s really nice to see the competition,” McCullough said. “[East head girls soccer coach Cristy Cooley] handles the girls and coach Collins does the guys side of it. Their work, and the work they do with my coaches, makes this thing go round. We’re all in it for these kids.”
The Panthers held off on football-specific skill work until their second week of workouts, looking to make up lost time from the spring. With UIL guidelines prohibiting any drills that encourage physical contact, McCullough said that time together will include plenty of teaching.
“We’re going to be getting in formations, motions and concepts. Since we can’t do the physical side of it, it’s going to be a lot of mental,” McCullough said. “… There have been some good things that are happening in a short period of time. We’re excited about it and we’re going to make the most out of it.”