One of the most frequently-repeated phrases, by coaches and athletes, at the Grand Forks High School football team’s practice field was about proper spacing.
The refrain had nothing to do with offensive plays, pass coverage, defensive schemes or anything else football related. This was about social distancing -- a new obstacle for football teams as they opened football practices for the season Monday.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reached out into the football field.
“You do (social distancing) as much as you can,’’ said Grand Forks Red River coach Vyrn Muir, whose football team also opened practices Monday. “They’re kids. They’re going to congregate. But we’ll try to distance them as much as possible.’’
At Red River, that included limiting players to 10 at a time in the locker room. The Roughriders had 45 players in grades 10-12 at opening practice.
At Central, with 86 players on the field in grades 9-12, Knights coaches limited to 20 the number of players in the locker room.
Athletes were encouraged to go home to shower after practices.
“It’s really different for the kids,’’ Central coach Bill Lorenz said. “You build the program culture in the locker room. It’s very different, not having them all in there together.’’
Neither Muir nor Lorenz were aware of any students who chose to not go out for football due to concerns about the virus. Muir, in fact, said he was pleasantly surprised by the fact that a few more athletes showed up than he had anticipated.
All the coaches wore cloth masks covering their nose and mouth except Muir, who went with a clear plastic shield that covered his entire face.
“I saw some elementary school teachers wearing them during summer school,’’ Muir said. “I was looking for a way to talk and be able to blow a whistle. The face shield is more workable for me.
“The only thing that really looked different was the coaches wearing masks.’’
Central players were wearing helmets on the opening day of practice. Red River players were not. Those were normal situations for both programs.
So, too, was the absence of contact. The tackling and blocking drills were done with dummies, blocking sleds and garbage cans.
“One of our main goals was to keep distances from each other,’’ Lorenz said. “Football is a contact sport. But in drills, we’ll try to spread the kids out.
“This is what we usually do. We’re probably working in shorter segments. But the first few days of practice there’s never a lot of contact. Once we do get going, we’ll start to have more contact. But it will be more tackling dummies and getting stuff done in group time.’’
Coaches also will sanitize footballs and all other equipment after each practice.
For coaches and athletes, there usually is growing anticipation for the upcoming season as the first practice draws closer. This year, that may be a heightened excitement after the pandemic resulted in the cancellation of all high school sports last spring.
“I told the guys when we got out here to appreciate every day we’re here,’’ Lorenz said, “because we’re not sure how long we will be out here.’’