Slowly back to normal

After COVID-19 affected practices last season, things are starting to slowly return to normal

South Williamsport players practice in July KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette

There were so many times where South Williamsport coach Chris Eiswerth had to take note of what group of players were weightlifting at what time. With the COVID-19 pandemic still going on last fall, the PIAA set guidelines about practices and weight training prior to season’s start in early summer.

Among them was only so many could be in the weight room at one time. So Eiswerth had to keep track of who was going in at 9 a.m.

And then 10 a.m.

Then 11 a.m.

So was the summer last year throughout not just the area, but all of District 4.

Fast forward a year, and while the pandemic hasn’t completely gone away yet, practices are looking a little bit more normal. And that’s something coaches are happy about.

“It was a lot more time consuming (with so many in the weight room). I’d have a group come in at 9 a.m., a group at 10 a.m., a group at 11 a.m. It restricted what you could do with kids on the field,” Eiswerth said. “We have time slots for the weight room and time slots for the field. I think things are efficient again.”

For teams like Muncy, the school was working on a building project and due to that, the Indians didn’t have a weight room to practice in throughout the summer.

“So the pandemic hit us double and it was hard to get kids in for workouts,” Tetreault said. “This year having a new weight facility and we can get 30 kids in there and spaced out. It has been a blessing.”

The unknowns last year were what Loyalsock coach Justin Van Fleet remembers the most. He never knew walking down the hallways at Loyalsock High School as a teacher if he’d get a call saying one of his players needed to quarantine, or if practices in general had to come to a sudden halt.

“The most difficult thing last year was not knowing what tomorrow would bring or a phone call after school, and the start and stop of the actual season. It would stop, it would stop, then a team would get shut down. You’d hear some team somewhere shut down and all of a suden it was your team,” Van Fleet said. “With that, there was always an anxiety concerning it with actual shutdowns. If you did get stopped, football’s not a sport you can acclimate toward in any rapid succession. The contact and geenral physical preparation it takes created a situation where I’d guess most teams that had a long term closure of operations upon return had similiar experiences as we did where a rash of injuries ripped through the team very quickly.”

Like Muncy, Loyalsock had to rethink how to do weight room exercises amidst a pandemic. Van Fleet and the Lancers had the equipment put around the old track around Loyalsock’s football field to be able to work out.

“That was a unique aspect of last year,” Van Fleet said. “We didn’t have any Olympic-style lifts. With that being stated, the training and meetings, all of that occurring, and getting that back to normal is a giant change (this year) and very welcomed.”

That weight room bonding this year and having the team being together for it is something that’s more than beneficial in a number of ways for all area teams. But it doesn’t mean teams are going to completely change what they did last year. While it was tough and provided obstacles for either weight room practices or small groups on the playing field, it did provide some beneficial aspects.

“It’s good to be a team. Part of being a team is being together, but on the flip side of that, we’re going to try to keep some of that group work because it allowed us to get more teaching done, so to speak,” Williamsport coach Chuck Crews said. “We had a small amount of kids and more manageable group, so we were able to be pretty effective in teaching with that smaller group.”

It’s a sentiment first-year Montoursville coach Mike Boughton echoes.

“I think we did learn some things from last year. We mixed things up a lot and broke things up into two different groups and could do speed training at one point and lifting with a different group of kids,” Boughton said. “We found it to be efective in some sort of ways. There’s some things we started during COVID and we’re doing ti because it gives us the best outlook on things. It’s not all bad coming out of COVID.”

In-person, face-to-face interactions were what all schools missed out on in 2020. Teams had to resort to Zoom meetings with players to connect and weren’t able to have giant meetings together either in the locker room or weight room. It changed how teams had to adapt and coordinate.

“We had to run through our playbook via Zoom and not seeing kids in person, a lot was put on the kids back, which was a good thing,” Boughton said. “They’d have to take responsibility of getting workouts in on their own.”

Boughton saw first-hand last summer how not being able to scrimmage other teams or have 7 on 7s affected his team.

“We had a great kid at quarterback in Maddix Dalena. Last year was first year being a starting quarterback for him and you can’t replicate not having those 7-on-7 workouts and working together wtih teammates and running different routes,” Boughton said. “You can’t do that without that summertime practice. We lost a lot and we got a lot of 7 on 7s in this summer. Maddix came to me and said ‘this has definitely helped us out,’ and we’re a little more connected and ahead of the game at this point.”

The lack of those scrimmages and 7 on 7s hurt teams in sense they couldn’t replicate live game-day action. For Eiswerth at South Williamsport, he had a lot of ninth and 10th graders on the roster who didn’t get that benefit of scrimmages or 7 on 7s to get experience of a game situation.

“These kids missed out on all of that interaction and game-type situational work that you can’t replicate at practice,” Eiswerth said. “Plus there’s a little bit of nervousness and things that go into it. Any time you can get a scrimmage in, any time you can get work in with a neighboring school, it’s great for the kids. Competition builds success.”

“Any time you can get more reps, especially with a younger team, it helps,” Tetreault said. “We’re a little older this year and a lot more seniors, but we’re still very young in the secondary with sophomores and juniors. More reps we can get them and game-type action, it will only make them better.”

For Crews at Williamsport, it’s nice having scrimmages this year to break up the monotony at practices.

“You’d schedule a 7 on 7 with a local school and that gives them something to look forward to. It breaks up the monotony,” Crews said. “If you missed tow days, I’m going to cut reps here. It helps in that respect. And the kids love to see a different color helmet to go against.”

When Week 1 kicks off August 27, fans in the area are hoping that the stands will be packed and everyone can cheer like they did pre-COVID pandemic. And having fans back is something the coaches and players want too. That’s what makes Friday nights so great: fans.

“There’s a couple components that makeup a good Friday. of course football and the team, but the most cirtical part is having cheerleaders, the band and of course the fans, Being without those four units last year, it made it a tad bit…” Crews said with a slight pause. “It was just empty. It was different.”

Last year was unusual, unique, different, odd. Pick whatever word you’d like to describe it. But 2020 is in the rearview mirror, and while the pandemic isn’t completely over yet, things are starting to look bright again. Just about as bright as the lights above area football fields.

“I think the No. 1 thing last year was just all the unknowns really. You really didn’t know what to expect with what was going to happen. They gave you all these protocols and demands and you had to constnatly monitor the team, constnatly go through them and check all the boxes and get everything done according to what these protocols said,” Eiswerth said. “Now, it’s wide open. Most of the year, we started lifting in January, all the way through winter and spring we had to wear masks. As mask restrictions were lifted, that was a huge thing right there. … We’re back to doing how we did things before.”­­

It isn’t completely back to normal yet, but practices sure start to feel it.


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