ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Football players in New York waited while Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Jersey played for their high schools.
Section V football chairman Scott Barker was frustrated knowing some of Section V’s southernmost schools were just minutes away from teams playing under Friday night lights.
“The frustration is, why does a boundary that is 10-15 miles away change so much of decision making? We couldn’t control what was going on here,” said Barker.
After 16 months without football, frustration became elation back in January when Governor Cuomo finally gave high risk sports the green light to begin. Student athletes, coaches, administrators, and parents all breathed a collective sigh of relief.
“I was so grateful they said yes when they were able to say no,” said Danny Lawther, Pittsford quarterback. “Every year brings its new challenges and new firsts, and this year has absolutely been a year of firsts.”
The firsts begin with preparation for the season beginning March 1. Games will begin on March 19. Normally, teams practice as a whole team for training camp. Due to COVID-19 guidelines, practices will have to be socially distant, so McQuaid head coach Bobby Bates has separated his team into cohorts for in-person workouts.
“We’ve been lifting 4 days per week and lift in groups,” said Bates. “We’ve been able to in our positional group meetings dive into different aspects of the playbook.”
Bates didn’t utilize Zoom the way other local teams may have partially because McQuaid went back to school full time at the beginning of the school year.
Learning the playbook over Zoom can be quite challenging for new players. Teams with multi-year or upperclassman quarterbacks are at an advantage, as they just need a refresher course.
“The playbook is something I memorized sophomore year when I started on varsity,” said Tyler Szalkowski, Aquinas quarterback. “I think it does give me a leg up, especially because there are other three years starters.”
For teams with many new players coming in, like Pittsford, the challenges come with developing team chemistry.
“With these unprecedented times I definitely had to be more personal with 30-something kids coming up this year,” said Lawther. “Over the quarantine we got to connect over social media, video games, and FaceTime.”
Both Lawther and Szalkowski have to make another jump as leaders this season to ensure their teams follow COVID-19 guidelines. No one wants to be the reason football ends prematurely, but administrators are confident in the students’ dedication to health and safety.
“On a real championship level team, an elite team, the players lead,” said Bates. “Those kids are on each other every day.”
“I don’t think we give our kids enough credit with what they are capable of doing,” said Barker. “What I’ve witnessed through social media and actually on my own fields, kids were gathering kids together in a safe way, and they were teachers. The upperclassmen had younger kids there, they were going over things with them.”
Athletes all over Section V took a social media pledge to say they would follow COVID guidelines to make sure every high-risk sport can have a season and promote accountability among students.
“I’m big on trying to keep my teammates in line with COVID rules and protocol to be good for everyone,” said Szalkowski. “I told my teammates at our lift, we’re going to be one of the safest teams in section 5. We’re going to keep our distance, do things by the book, and be ready to play.”
The NYSPHSAA released football specific guidelines, including but not limited to:
- Eliminate all handshakes, fist bumps and similar gestures pre- and post-game.
- Limit the number of non-essential personnel who are on the field level throughout the contest.
- If available, dressing facilities for game officials and teams should be large enough for them to use social-distancing protocols and should be properly cleaned and sanitized prior to their arrival.
- The team box may be extended on both sides of the field to the 10-yard lines (for players only) in order for more social-distancing space for the teams.
Like every other sport, each player will be allowed two spectators. Even though the stands will not be filled, the excitement to see teams on the field for the first time is the same.
“We’ve been advocating for this to happen. We’ve been waiting a long time and gone through months of change,” said Barker. “Just seeing kids back out playing football will be a great feeling.”
“The amount of time we’ve had together to be able to think, anticipate, and dream a little bit for the season, now it’s finally here,” said Lawther. “It will definitely be an extra emotional season.”