Coaches have mixed opinions on start of football season

By Mike Ridaught
Twitter – @ridaught

With the FHSAA Board of Directors meeting approaching this Friday, several area head football coaches offered their thoughts on whether the first day of fall practice would be on August 24 or delayed even longer.

“I’m going to air on the side of science and say they are going to push it back,” said St. Francis Catholic Academy (Gainesville) football coach Scott McDaniel, whose team has been working out since June 15 but has not been in the weight room yet due to county regulations and safety protocols. “If we’re going to play, there can’t be all these restrictions. There is no way for me to avoid laying on you if I tackle you and you run me over.”

In a recent poll about whether the season would begin on August 24 or pushed back, the results were 50/50 a total of 90 votes in.

“I’d hate to bet on it,” said first-year Union County (Lake Butler) football coach Andrew Thomas. “I’ve been going back and forth.”

Thomas, who won two Class 1A state titles at Trenton, left Trinity Catholic (Ocala) after two seasons and accepted the job with the Tigers prior to the start of spring.

“It’s been tough because when I was hired it was right when everything shut down, so I didn’t even really know my kids, know faces, know anything,” he explained. “I hadn’t really met them all until June.”

Former Union County assistant Brian Tomlinson, who was the head coach of the Tigers’ baseball team which won the Class 1A state title in 2012, is a little more optimistic.

“My opinion is I think we will (start 8/24),” said Tomlinson, who enters his fourth season as head coach of the Bradford (Starke) Tornadoes with three consecutive playoff appearances. “I think we need it, first and foremost. I think it’s something to get us to a little bit more of some type of normalcy.”

Dixie County (Cross City) football coach LB Cravey, who enters his second season after leading the Bears to the playoffs in his first year, feels like the season is almost here.

“I personally believe that because in our small area football is so important,” said Cravey, who referenced a recent decline in Covid-19 numbers. “They need it. If the numbers/statistics can show that, I believe we can start practicing by the end of this month.”

Until then, coaches are doing their best to navigate through a difficult and unprecedented time with their players.

“We’ve just encouraged them to see this as any other adversity that we go through,” said Buchholz (Gainesville) football coach Mark Whittemore, the dean of football coaches in Alachua County. “We’re really trying to stay connected and communicate with each other, lifting each other up.”

Whittemore said the key has been staying engaged and offering hope to his players.

“I think a lot of kids struggle with the mental fatigue of all of this, the emotional fatigue, so we’ve just tried to stay upbeat, stay positive, stay in these kids’ lives, and because of that we’ve been able to maintain some good momentum,” he said. “They’ve embraced it.”

It’s been an “untraditional summer” according to McDaniel, whose team has been doing push-ups, body weight squats, and sit-ups because they have been limited to working out outside the weight room.

“Our weight room is so small that you can only get two kids in there at a time,” he explained. “You have to clean after every exercise. With a roster of 23 kids, it would take us about 12 hours to get everybody through.”

Whether it’s been untraditional or unconventional, coaches have found ways to push their teams.

“It’s been a good summer considering the situation,” said Thomas. “There have been times where we have been able to put them through situations and test their toughness and what they’re about.”

The first day of fall practice was supposed to begin on July 27. Coaches are trying to use the extra conditioning time to their advantage.

“This extra month that we are getting, I’ve tried to spin it as a positive for us because we’re so young and really underdeveloped on the physical side that we need another month in the weight room,” said Thomas.

Now the question is, is it safe to play?

McDaniel called it an “illusion of safety” to not let players shake hands at midfield “yet I’m going to tackle you 35 times.”

“If it’s safe enough to play, we should play,” added McDaniel. “And if it’s not safe enough to play, like that, then maybe we should wait until it is safe enough to play.”

At their July 23rd Board Meeting, the FHSAA Board of Directors voted 11-4 in favor of postponing the start date of fall sports until August 24th.  However, on July 20, the FHSAA voted 10-5 to keep the start date at July 27.

We’ll find out on Friday if three weeks has been enough time to overturn the decision, yet again.