High school sports and activities were greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, as the Utah High School Activities Association was forced to cancel the spring sports season and the upcoming fall sports season was put into limbo.
However, as the state of Utah begins to reopen, so, too, have practices and games.
Over the past couple weeks, the Tooele County School District gave the go-ahead for teams to resume offseason conditioning sessions. Summer baseball games got under way on Monday, the same day football teams were allowed to begin practicing and working out on school grounds for the first time since mid-March.
“As good as it feels for me, I think it feels even better for the kids,” Stansbury coach Eric Alder said. “The kids admitted it — they missed school. They missed the peer interaction every day. They missed working out together, having a team and team goals. I can sense a renewed sense of energy and gratitude. For the better part of those two months, I don’t think anybody knew if we were going to have a season or if we were going to be in school. It was scary for everyone. It was depressing and unnerving. The uncertainty of this whole situation is not something humans are used to dealing with, not knowing what lies ahead.
“I know sports isn’t everything in life, but it’s a huge part of these young people’s development, a huge part of their relationships and their friendships. These are the formative years in a high school kid’s life, and to see that taken away from them for two months was painful.”
There are safety protocols in place that the teams are following in order to get back to practice. Each student-athlete must fill out a brief health questionnaire and have their temperature taken each day before they can start working out. Alder said Stansbury’s football team has its 130-player roster split into three groups of no more than 50 each, splitting time between the weight room and the field. Tooele and Grantsville have moved their strength training outside.
“We’re doing an all-body workout — medicine balls, sledgehammers, tire flips — kind of the old-school way,” Tooele coach Andru Jones said. “There’s some guidelines and regulations in the weight room and we can’t fit all our kids in the weight room, and it’s a safety issue – kids can’t have a spotter because you have to stay six feet away.”
Grantsville coach Kody Byrd said his players are excited to be together again, to the point that they sometimes have to be reminded to maintain social distancing.
“It’s hard to keep them apart and spaced like they’re supposed to, especially when they haven’t really been able to hang out and see each other,” Byrd said. “We approached it with, ‘we’re going to jump through whatever hoops we have to to ensure and increase the likelihood that we’ll have a season.’”
The loss of two-plus months of weight training and film sessions has and an effect on players, though things were made easier through online videoconferencing.
“Our district allowed us to do Zoom meetings,” Jones said. “We could show them video of what a good technique looks like and things like that. That was a blessing for us. Our varsity guys were able to remember our things, and now it’s just getting on the field to perform those.”
Byrd said his players received workout plans via email, and their teammates helped encourage them to stay in shape.
“It seems like they took that to heart and worked out on their own quite a bit,” he said. “This group of seniors stepped up really well and have taken some leadership roles to make sure kids are working out.”
There is still a level of uncertainty surrounding the upcoming season, which is scheduled to kick off Aug. 14. The UHSAA said the season will likely proceed as scheduled, as long as all counties in the state are in the low-risk (yellow) phase. As of Thursday morning, Salt Lake City and the San Juan County communities of Bluff and Mexican Hat remained in the moderate-risk (orange) phase. The protocol that would go into effect should a student-athlete test positive for COVID-19 during the season is among the questions yet to be answered.
“I’m sure they’re going to come out with guidelines and say, ‘here’s what happens — here’s what you need to do if someone tests positive for this virus,’” Alder said. “Will they shut us down? Will one kid getting the virus affect 100 other kids that are completely healthy and ready to play, or can we come up with a way where we isolate the individual and be able to safely proceed?”
It has also not been determined whether spectators will be allowed to attend games this fall, though there is some optimism.
“It would be nice to have a home opener (Aug. 14) and have fans cheer for us,” Jones said. “At the end of the day, if we can just play the game, it would be great for the mental well-being of our kids.
“Some people will say, ‘is it really worth doing all this to play?’ It is. To see a kid smile and get to throw a football is priceless. To me, it is worth it. The guidelines are going to help save kids and save people (in general).”