With plenty of protocols, football set to go again

Dover coach Rudy Simonetti says his players have made following health protocols just another part of their football routine. Delaware State News file photos

Dan Candeloro still has his lesson plan from that day up on the board of his classroom.

It was Friday, March 13.

That was the last day the Caesar Rodney High football coach and his players were all in the same place at the same time.

So finally getting back together again a couple weeks ago to begin workouts was fun for the Riders.

“The kids are just happy to be around each other in a structured setting,” said Candeloro. “We’re glad to be around the kids, the kids are glad to be around us. It’s been a great atmosphere for the whole team.”

On Monday, CR and every other team in the state will embark on a season that figures to be unlike any other high school football fall we’ve seen before.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, everybody in the stadium on game night — including the players and officials — will be wearing masks.

Everybody on the sidelines will be at least six feet apart. There will only be a very limited number of people in the stands. Players won’t get in a handshake line after the game.

But that’s just the obvious, game-time stuff.

The detailed, safety procedures will be in the everyday practices where players will be expected to social distance — as much as possible in a contact sport — use only the equipment assigned to their specific group, bring their own water bottles and disinfect their equipment afterward.

Of course, each player will also have to have their temperature taken and be checked in when they first arrive at practice.

If all that sounds like a lot to think about, Henlopen Conference football coaches say their players seem on board with following all the protocols.

Dover High coach Rudy Simonetti said his players practice dealing with different game situations anyway.

“We just kind of take this as another situational thing, so to speak,” he said. “You’ve got to practice social distancing on the sideline, you’ve got to make sure everyone is wearing a mask. So we adjust accordingly in practice. We make sure everyone’s wearing their mask or we make them do pushups.

Being together with his players again has been great for everybody, said CR coach Dan Candeloro.

“It is what it is. We’ve just got to treat it like it’s a tactical part of the game.”

“We can coach the football side pretty easily,” said Smyrna coach Mike Judy. “If you want to make us comfortable, you say, ‘Hey, go have a football practice.’ We’re like, ‘All right.’ You barely have to think. You know it inside and out.”

All the health and safety guidelines, though, give coaches a new layer of things to plan out.

“Honestly, the kids have been outstanding with the procedures,” said Judy. “It’s like, ‘Oh, wear a mask? No problem. OK, we’re wiping the balls down? OK, no problem.’ It’s been great. I’m really, really proud of them. They haven’t complained since Day One, not a thing.”

“On the first day, we kind of sat all the kids in the stands and went over the guidelines and all the protocols we had to follow,” said Candeloro. “We kind of let them know, if we don’t follow these, someone could come in and shut us down.”

Reversing course

The other fall sports — boys’ soccer, cross country, field hockey and volleyball — all have protocols to follow, too, naturally. They’ll be wearing masks when they compete.

But football is the only fall sport that was labeled “high risk” by state health officials.

Football was the only sport singled out by Gov. John Carney when he said in August, “I don’t know how you do it safely. I don’t know how you do the line play safely when these guys are a foot or two apart, banging heads together on every play.”

In a way, though, it was probably the long odds against football being played this fall that made coaches dig in.

Smyrna coach Mike Judy thinks football coaches will have to be more relaxed about some things.

It was the Delaware Interscholastic Football Coaches Association that put together a long, detailed plan to convince state officials that they could play the sport while also trying to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Michigan may be the only other state that is requiring high school football players to wear masks during games.

“Everyone knows what to expect at this point,” said St. Georges coach John Wilson, DIFCA’s president. “We’re still learning a lot about this and we’re going through the process and the stages. But I think the best part is, everyone is invested in this.

“Most importantly the students themselves have bought into what is necessary to make this possible for them.”

Remember, the fact that football couldn’t originally be played in the fall was one reason some Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association board members gave for moving all fall sports to late winter/early spring. Twenty-three percent of fall student-athletes in the state play football.

And state officials then reversing themselves, and allowing football, was one of the reasons given for fall sports being moved back to the fall. Competition is slated to start on Oct. 19 for all sports with football beginning a seven-game schedule on Oct. 23.

Changing things up

Clearly, the health guidelines are going to give coaches some new situations to consider.

Players on the sidelines are now going to be spread out from one 10-yard-line to the other. So if your team is down near one goal line, coaches better make sure that the big lineman they want to go in the game isn’t up at the other 10-yard-line.

Candeloro said he thinks developing more depth is going to be crucial. If a player makes a long run with a mask on, he’s probably going to need a few plays to come out and catch his breath.

There’s off-the-field issues to think about as well. Since most schools are still doing online learning, the players have to find rides to school for workouts right now.

Simonetti said Dover’s player leadership council has done a good job of arranging carpools.

“They do a great job of staying in contact and making sure everyone has rides,” said Simonetti. “In the past month, I think we’ve averaged 60 to 65 kids at workouts. Everyone tends to find a way.”

As much as coaches and their staffs are going to need to pay attention to more details, Judy said he thinks coaches are also going have to be more relaxed in other ways.

“If you try to run this as tightly as you would normally run it, I think you’re going to do more harm than good,” he said. “You can’t worry on a day-to-day basis like if a kid can’t get a ride or whatever. We’ve just got to roll with it. They’re doing the best they can, parents are doing the best they can and we have to be really flexible.

“When they’re here, we focus on the things that matter right now — which is keeping everybody safe. And in the midst of all that, you’re getting back to teaching some football.”

“We’re all in this together,” said Candeloro. “I think we’ll put out a good product. The kids deserve to have good coaching, good football, and I think they’ll get it.”