By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – High school football’s first huge test – and it’s definitely a pass-fail examination with wide-reaching implications – will take place Friday night. Everyone, even those wearing masks, will be holding their breath for the outcome.
With the eyes of state leaders and health officials watching every move and studying all angles and stats, the IHSAA-sanctioned scrimmages will represent the initial step for the continuation of contact sports. Football has been, and will continue to be, in the eye of the storm surrounding fall sports amidst the coronavirus problem.
Will all the precautions and protocols work? When Bedford North Lawrence visits Mitchell for the annual county version of the scripted workouts, the usual storylines of position competition and final decisions prior to the season opener will be overshadowed, If everything goes smoothly and safely, the sport wins. If not, if COVID spreads, it will likely lose.
Optimism currently outweighs the worry.
“As far as what we can do, what we can control, how kids will follow – or not follow – the rules, I believe it will go well,” BNL coach Steve Weber said. “I really do. There are a lot of things out of our control, but I really believe the scrimmage will work well.”
Here’s how the scrimmage is set to unfold from a safety standpoint. The footballs will be cleaned periodically, and social distancing will be required on the sidelines. To help that, the area for coaches and players has been extended 20 yards in each direction. Each player must bring his own water container and wear a face mask when not on the field. Fans will not be permitted in the stands. Coaches, players and essential personnel only.
“It’s a matter of going on with life, with sports as they are, and when the hurdles come we have to figure out if we cross it or put things on hold for a while,” Mitchell coach Troy Pritchett said. “It’ll work, as long as we don’t get exposed. If we do, it can put us all on hold.”
Normally, the scrimmage is all about exposure: the kind coaches prefer. Exposing an athlete to a hostile opponent, getting scripted plays recorded to review, seeing what works and who’s ready. Coaches would rather talk about that.
“First, it’s just letting the kids play a game, hitting somebody,” Weber said. “It’s that next step to things being normal again. They’re tired of practicing against each other, hitting each other. So it will be blowing off some steam.
“Second, we have a ton of positions still open, different combinations we can go with. So it will be seeing who can step up and earn a spot. Whatever emerges will tell us the direction we want to go. We’re trying not to play people both ways, if possible.”
The Stars have critical decisions to make, especially at tailback and the offensive line. In reality, almost every starting spot is still in play. For the Bluejackets, running back is also a key area of concern. So look for a lot of running plays.
“Are we going to have that one running back that’s going to step up and say ‘Give me the ball and get out of the way?’” Pritchett said. “That’s the style we need. We’ve always had a big bruising back, and we still need a guy to fall into the role.”
Under Pritchett’s guidance, the Bluejackets have historically fared well in this format. Perhaps it’s because of the simpler approach, the ball-control offense and the bending defense that takes away so many variables. BNL’s option attack usually takes more time to smooth out.
“The good thing about scrimmaging BNL is we get a solid opponent at every position,” Pritchett said. “We script our plays and treat it as a true practice. We will try to win every battle on every play. Scores don’t matter. Every time the ball is snapped, we look at it as 11 battles. We want to win every single one of those, and then kids know they will be evaluated on that. This gives us a really good tool.”
This scrimmage will also be a really good tool for future decisions. While the status of regular-season games will likely be week-to-week, depending on virus tests and case numbers, these sessions will be a huge factor. The coaches and athletes on the field aren’t worried about that.
“Our approach is we’re just playing for the next one,” Pritchett said. “We want to get in our practices, get a shot on Friday night, and get a reward for all the work we’re put in. Then we’ll start all over on Monday. It has slowed us down to taking one step at a time.”
The scrimmage is set for 7 p.m.