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High school football coaches prepare for uncertainty

By nature, football coaches are strategists. They game plan. They analyze an opponent and find the best way to attack it.

The start of football season is still a long way off – four months, to be precise – and normally fans wouldn’t be discussing high school football much in mid-April.

But times are different.

The coronavirus has upended society “as we know it,” and what was certain a month ago is uncertain today. What football fans could count on and plan on in August, September and October no longer applies.

It is already clear there will be no spring training for football teams. There can be no athletic events or organized practice or evaluations until after June 5.

That much is certain. Beyond that is anyone’s guess.

“As far as we go, we just keep doing what we are doing,” said Red Bay football coach Michael Jackson. “Kids have got to be responsible for keeping themselves in shape on their own. I have a football Facebook page set up for the younger guys, and I post workouts for them. I talk to the older guys on the phone at least once a week.”

Jackson has an advantage there, with plenty of leadership and experience returning.

“We have 18 seniors and 16 returning starters,” Jackson explained. “They are taking the lead. They know the situation, and they know they are accountable to each other.

“I don’t have to worry about them. They want to have a special season, and they know what it takes.”

The Alabama High School Athletic Association will meet in mid-May to come up with a plan for summer activities if schools are reopened after June 5. A committee is set up for fall sports, but no decisions will be made until later in the summer.

Phil Campbell’s Kevin Barnwell said he hopes his team will be energized when they eventually get to come back.

“In the past many of my players have made a deep run in baseball, we get one week of spring training, and then we go right into summer workouts,” Barnwell said. “Maybe this time off will give them some extra energy and motivation. They certainly shouldn’t be burned out.”

Like the Red Bay Tigers, the Bobcats also return several seniors and experienced players.

“The guys have been working out on their own,” said Barnwell. “We gave them some things to be doing while they were on their own. The teams that will be successful are the ones who are willing to do the work it takes when no one is looking.”

Barnwell said he is also preparing to use technology to meet with coaches and players.

“We are going to be setting up Zoom meetings soon,” said Barnwell. Zoom is an online group meeting platform many schools and businesses are using in this stay-at-home time. “We are going to be looking to simplify things and just get good at what we do.”

Russellville’s John Ritter also has the advantage of a senior-laden team to weather the spring uncertainty.

“We have 65 players coming back, and 30 are seniors and 19 are starters,” said Ritter. “All but two or three of those 19 are multi-year starters. So it makes it easier to have those guys out there.

“I have all my players’ phone numbers, and we talk back and forth in group chats to keep everyone motivated and their spirits up.”

Ritter also said technology is helping with his team’s ability to workout on their own at home.

“We use the Team Builder app for strength and conditioning,” Ritter explained. “If they have access to weights, they can still work out and log their results and progress.”

Ritter said he has also used the extra time to help some of his college prospects.

“We have six or seven guys who can play at the next level. I’ve been able to send out more film than usual and help get these guys some more exposure.”

Ritter said he believes the teams with the most leadership and experience will have an advantage when the restrictions are lifted.

“We are all in the same boat,” said Ritter. “Every team in the state is in the same situation. The ones that will be successful are the ones that are self-motivated. That is where experience and leadership will be an advantage.”

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