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Amid pandemic, high school football remains in holding pattern

What will prep football look like in 2020? Will there even be a fall season? The state is offering no answers.

He has been forced to temporarily exchange his in-your-grill philosophy for distance coaching.

Dixie Hollins football coach Dale Caparaso is trying to forge structure and routine online, hoping his gravelly voice — containing fragments of a New England accent — resonates remotely.

Through group texts and collaborative platforms (such as Microsoft Teams), Caparaso and his staff mentor and tutor players daily. For now, it appears to be working.

“So far so good,” Caparaso said, “for the situation we are in.”

Which is to say, limbo.

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In three months (week of Aug. 12-15), the prep football season in Florida is scheduled to kick off with preseason games throughout the state. Whether the season goes off, or goes away, depends on the length and intensity of the novel coronavirus’ rampage, which already wiped out spring practice.

“Honestly, more than anything,” Mitchell coach Andy Schmitz said, “nobody has any clue right now.”

“We just know that schools are shut down until the end of the (academic year),” Robinson coach Craig Everhart said. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we might be able to get something rolling shortly thereafter, but who knows? The probability of that being delayed is probably pretty high.”

Will Jordan Oladokun and other rising seniors be able to run through conditioning drills this summer? So far, there's no word from the Florida High School Athletic Association. [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times (2019)]

To this point, the Florida High School Athletic Association ― the state’s prep sports governing body ― has offered no public timetable or contingency plans regarding the 2020 football season. Hillsborough County’s school district said it expects all athletic activities to remain canceled at least through June 15.

In an e-mail to the Tampa Bay Times, a spokesperson for the state organization said, “We are unable to speculate for the upcoming seasons at this time and encourage all member schools to continue following the CDC and local health department guidelines.”

A follow-up e-mail, pressing for any information on potential contingency plans, wasn’t answered. Meantime, Georgia reportedly is pondering a number of proposals for the resumption of the sport, including one calling for shorts-and-helmets practices to begin July 6.

“(Florida High School Athletic Association officials) have said that they are working on alternative plans, i.e. possibly moving the season maybe back a little bit,” Pinellas County athletic director Al Bennett said. “But they haven’t said what those plans would be specifically.”

So area coaches and kids ― from Boca Ciega to Brooksville ― are left to wait. During this tense, tedious interim, coaches endeavor remotely to keep players academically eligible and physically conditioned.

“Right now, we’re kind of at the mercy of the state,” Hernando coach Rob Kazmier said.

“It seems like a few times a week, I get texts from parents, ‘When are summer workouts starting?’ And then the kids constantly are like, ’Any word on workouts yet?’

“I tell ‘em we’re kind of like the low man on the totem pole. You turn on the TV and you go on social media, they’re trying to figure out what to do with the NBA, MLB, the NFL. … You’re looking at professional sports pushing everything back. I’m like, ’Guys, they’re not gonna risk children.’”

As that trickle-down process slowly unfolds, the immediate future of prep sports hangs in the balance.

Gates are huge at high school football games, where the turnout (like Mitchell's student body section, known as the The Stang Gang) can help fund other sports beyond football. [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times (2019)]

At most Florida high schools, an athletic department’s economic fate hinges on football. The money generated by five or six home games (or more) helps finance a number of non-revenue sports, in myriad ways.

Ticket sales, while a large part of the equation, often are accompanied by other fundraising ventures. The volleyball team may work the concession stands for a game or two, earning part of the proceeds. The cross country team may sponsor a bake sale or boiled-peanut stand. Wrestlers may hawk T-shirts.

“You have schools that can make thousands of dollars in one night,” Pasco County athletic director Matt Wicks said. “And that helps pay for uniforms in other sports that don’t generate one dollar in gate fees.”

Subtract a football season, and Wicks acknowledges the effect could be “quite crippling” to athletic departments.

“Even if we do start on time and we have regular football games,” Bennett said, “I’m sure that the attendance is gonna be decreased (because of) people that aren’t comfortable yet going back and sitting with 1,000 other people.”

The potential solutions? Delaying the start of the football season, though prep sports seasons in Florida already overlap considerably. Push those first games back to October, and basketball, soccer and wrestling seasons are compromised, particularly at smaller schools rife with multi-sport athletes.

Then again, no football at all could mean no hoops or wrestling in turn.

"It just seems horrible for (kids) that they would have to make that decision, especially the seniors,” said Schmitz, who has eight players who also compete for Mitchell’s basketball team.

“You're asking them to make a decision on what sport to play their senior year of high school. And there might not be any way around it. That might be what we have to do, but it's just a shame."

Staging games with no fans, while plausible, would eliminate the gate revenue so essential to prep athletic departments. Most bay area schools have been ― or are being ― equipped with Pixellot cameras by the National Federation of State High School Associations, which would allow games to be seen via live stream.

“(No fans) is fine, but how do you afford that? And then what are we teaching the kids?” Kazmier said.

“Now we’re teaching the kids, ‘Look, those people can’t sit in the stadium because they’d be too close together, but now go block that kid and get your sweat and spit on him.’ It’s kind of asinine to even look at it that way.”

Meantime, spring segues to summer. With no clear guidance from the state, coaches are left with no recourse but to engage and encourage their players remotely as if the season will go off as scheduled.

Related: Hillsborough County reinstates spring pay for football coaches

In addition to a group-text app, Caparaso developed a Rebels football page on the school’s Microsoft Teams site. Players must check in daily for updates, and coaches log on in shifts throughout the day and evening to assist with schoolwork. Video and written instructions for workouts are included.

Lakewood had one of the best seasons of any Tampa Bay football team a year ago. [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times]

At Lakewood, coach Cory Moore holds position-related conferences and offers suggested workouts via Zoom. Everhart has put Robinson’s playbook on an app and developed short quizzes for his players to take weekly. He also Zooms regularly with 15 “group leaders” who oversee smaller team groups.

"The big thing that I've been trying to drive home for my young men is that this is just about the game of life,” Moore said.

“And we talk about that at any given point, this game can be taken away. Sometimes, you don't even have control over whether it's your last snap or not. I've told them to embrace that now, but the only thing they have control over right now is what they can do academically.”

At the district level, Bennett is putting together a small committee (coaches, doctors, trainers) to develop guidelines for when student-athletes are allowed back on campus to practice or work out.

“You wouldn’t bring 60 players back at one time,” he said. “Maybe we’d ease into it where you’d bring 12 or 15 kids in for an 8 o’clock workout, more kids in for a 9 o’clock workout, try to keep it so there’s not the whole team there.”

Indeed, one can’t restore normalcy by impulsively flipping a switch.

Friday night lights can short-circuit, too.

“Sports will take place again,” Kazmier said. “But there’s no need to rush it.”

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