Starkville High School football coach Chris Jones was supposed to be getting a first look at the best offense the Yellow Jackets have had in his four years at the helm.
Monday was supposed to be Starkville’s first spring practice of the season, allowing Jones his first real chance to watch the 2020 edition of the Jackets take the field.
But Starkville’s home stadium is empty, and it won’t be full for some time. The high school is closed for the rest of the year due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, and when Jones’ players can crowd the turf again remains unknown.
“It sucks, man,” Jones told The Dispatch on Thursday. “I wish we could be playing, but I understand, of course. You don’t want to rush and get out there and get everybody infected.”
Jones said he and other high school coaches have been calling each other out of boredom, curious as to their opinions on playing this fall as scheduled. So far, the Jackets’ coach is staying positive.
“I’m gonna be real optimistic and say that we’re gonna play this year,” Jones said. “I think America needs it. I think the economy needs it. We need something to get us motivated again.”
He knows, however, that a prompt and normal return to play isn’t easy. Myriad obstacles face high school football teams around the Golden Triangle as they hope for a full 2020 season.
Of those problems, having adequate time to practice, condition and acclimate before the start of the regular season is perhaps the biggest.
“I’m not concerned with practice time as far as when two-a-days can start,” Heritage Academy coach Sean Harrison said. “I’m much more concerned with the conditioning and heat acclimation and all of that. In a perfect world, we’d be back tomorrow, but obviously, that’s not going to happen.”
The Patriots would usually be working with assistant coach Tony Phinisey at present, but instead, Heritage Academy coaches have been sending their players workouts to do at home. Harrison said the team discussed bringing in fewer than 10 players into the school’s weight room in accordance with social distancing guidelines but ultimately decided against it.
“If we can’t have school, I find it to be maybe a little inappropriate to continue athletics when we can’t continue our academics on campus,” Harrison said.
West Point coach Chris Chambless said the inability to have players train — and bond — in the weight room has hurt team chemistry and fitness, especially when some athletes don’t have weights or gym access outside of school.
“Nothing’s as good as the real thing: getting in the weight room with everybody,” Chambless said.
In the interim, Chambless has instructed the Green Wave to practice core workouts, something they typically do outside anyway. Weights are just an “added bonus,” he said.
Breaking even while schools are closed and practices forbidden — through at least June 1 and until further notice — is all local coaches can hope for.
“If we can come out of this deal in as good a shape as we were when we went into it, then I’ll be happy, but I’m not expecting any gains,” Harrison said.
Weight training is one of the things local coaches use to avoid heatstroke, exhaustion and cramps in Mississippi’s extreme heat. Columbus coach Joshua Pulphus had his Falcons running and lifting weights in March before schools were closed, hoping to acclimate his players to the summer temperatures.
“I do think injuries could come, but I believe coaches in the state will do a good job of monitoring kids,” he said.
Pulphus said having enough time to prepare is important in that goal, saying a hypothetical July 1 start to practices would cause the Mississippi High School Activities Association to push the start of the regular season back from mid-August.
Harrison espoused a similar view should the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools or local guidelines not allow practices for much of the summer.
“I don’t think we can give kids home workouts to do and expect to show up on Aug. 1 and say ‘Alright, boys, let’s go practice and let’s go play the 21st,'” Harrison said. “I don’t think that’s feasible for the safety of our kids.”
What alternatives could Mississippi schools take to alleviate coaches’ concerns? Jones mentioned starting the season after Labor Day, buying thermometers to routinely test players for possible symptoms of the virus, cutting out non-division games and even playing without a crowd.
“We’re just gonna pray that doesn’t happen,” Harrison said of hosting games without fans. “To me, the high school and college athletes, they’re not being paid. This isn’t their job. I personally would hate to get into that situation.”
Harrison said the next few weeks will be critical in shaping the 2020 season — if there ultimately is a season at all.
For now, anyway, local coaches will hold onto hope that they’ll be back on the field whenever they can.
“Any football is better than no football,” Jones said. “A lot of stuff is being put on the table. Hopefully we can get back to going.”