After Labor Day weekend, the football practice fields at the high schools in Sumter School District will look a bit different.
This week marked the final week of summer workouts, as teams transition to officially moving into practice mode next week. All of this comes after Sumter School District athletes weren’t allowed to condition for over two months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sumter head coach Mark Barnes said he hasn’t felt this excitement around the start of practice in a long time.
“I think the biggest difference for me, and it goes back to 1989, my first year as a head coach, how you couldn’t do as many thing over the summer and then when you did start practice that first day, there was that level of excitement about football actually starting,” Barnes said. “There was more of that this year than I can remember in a long time, because so much of every sport has become lifting year-round, you’re running year-round, and you’re practicing so much in the summer time and spring practice that sometimes the first day of practice isn’t any different than any of those other days. This year that certainly was not the case.”
The shift to practice mode started a little bit this week. Starting on Monday, the South Carolina High School League pulled back some of the restrictions for workouts, specifically in terms of numbers. After a few weeks of having to keep players and coaches to groups of 16 or fewer, coaches are now able to group players however they deem fit, though social distancing is still required whenever possible.
“To be able to go out to a field or a field and a half and see all of your football players in a general area, that was an awesome feeling,” Lakewood head coach Larry Cornelius said.
Barnes was equally thrilled to see all of his players in one place.
“It seemed like there were 1,000 players out there,” Barnes said. “You’re used to dealing with 16 in a group counting your coaches and all of a sudden I think we had 120 players out there Monday and Tuesday for grades 10-12, which is a little bit high for us.”
Teams were also allowed to begin using helmets last week. Lakewood started using helmets as soon as it could on Monday, while Crestwood waited until Wednesday and Sumter held off until Thursday. The three schools will take another step toward full pads on Tuesday, as shoulder pads will be brought into the fold.
“They’re pretty excited to put the shoulder pads on to get some things that are a little closer to the football that they’re used to playing,” Crestwood head coach Roosevelt Nelson said. “We’re just trying to do things as safely as possible, trying to get guys in some football shape.”
One thing that will be very different this season is that players in Sumter School District won’t physically be at school as practice starts. That makes little things like making sure everyone has a ride to practice a lot more difficult.
“To get the kids to practice is also going to be a challenge, because normally they’d be in school,” Cornelius said. “We will be kicking back our practice times to 4:30 next week and a lot of parents are working at that time. To be able to communicate between the players to get rides here, because we don’t want to be practicing late at night. Whether its virtual school or not, we want to get these kids home at an appropriate time, so that’s going to be a challenge that we’re going to face starting next week.”
Safety has been the biggest concern about running team activities during a pandemic, but now teams are worried about a different kind of safety. Nelson is taking a slower approach to hitting this season because he knows his team hasn’t had the buildup to contact like it normally does.
“I can definitely see this year that we won’t be as full gear as we’ve been in the past as far as practice time,” Nelson said. “There won’t be as much full gear involved with that, because the kids have had five to six months without doing anything for a lot of them. It’s going to take a little while longer to get their bodies back into being prepared for football.
“You always want to make sure you stay as healthy as possible when it comes to the football part, but once you get shoulder pads on, you’re going to start to get more physical with what you’re trying to get done. You hope the injury bug doesn’t start biting you.”
Cornelius isn’t as concerned about ramping up contact at Lakewood. In his mind, if you’re teaching your players how to hit correctly, they’ll be safe.
“To be honest, no,” Cornelius said when asked if he was more concerned about starting contact this season. “I think if people are doing it differently now, then they’ve been coaching it wrong in the past. There should always be an emphasis defensively on the proper way to tackle and making sure that we’re being safe in what we do. That should be something we do year in and year out, so I don’t think that portion has changed.”
Now that teams are shifting from workouts to practice, coaches also have to reconsider how they’re spending their practice times. Since Sumter School District teams weren’t allowed to do conditioning workouts for the better part of two months, workouts were all about getting players in shape. Now the focus will shift more to fundamentals and the Xs and Os. Over at Sumter, Barnes was actually pleasantly surprised his players were more up to speed on the Gamecocks’ scheme than he planned.
“The shocking thing to us, believe it or not, was I made a big speech to our coaches about the fact that our players aren’t going to remember anything. It’s been so long since we worked on football that we’d have to reteach everything to them, and we were very pleasantly surprised as a staff at the retention level our players had of our schemes and plays and defensive calls,” Barnes said. “So we’re further ahead that way than we thought we were going to be.”
In fact, Barnes thinks his team will be just as prepared for its season opener against Socastee on Sept. 25 than it has been for any other season opener.
“Sometimes as a coach, you take things a little too seriously. I’m going to predict that we’re as good in Week 1 this year as we’ve been any year in Week 1,” Barnes said. “We might find out as coaches that we might spend — and I say this for every sport — we’re probably spending too much time with our players year-round. That it’s not as needed as maybe we think it is and we might be overworking instead of working smart all the time.”
Games are now weeks away, with all three Sumter School District teams kicking off on Sept. 25. Cornelius said that he and his staff are just trying to simplify things as much as possible to get the Gators ready for their season opener against Camden.
“Keep it simple, we have to keep it simple,” the Lakewood coach said. “We can’t throw a lot of different concepts at our kids. Our playbooks may be huge on the offensive and defensive side, but playbooks are only as good as the kids retain it. We have to start off with building block A, and we can’t really move on until everyone understands building block A.”
Nelson said the key to this stretch of practices will be trying not to compact too much into this tight window.
“Games are approaching quick, but we’re taking a very smart and cautious approach to it,” Nelson said. “We’re not trying to do anything that’s going to put us in a major rush and jeopardize the safety of our coaches and kids. We’re coming along just fine.”
Barnes is going to make sure his team isn’t overlooking important aspects of the game. He specifically mentioned one area that teams may not focus on enough is special teams.
“I think you have a check list of what you need to get accomplished between now and then, and you just divide it up by however many days you’ve got. You’ve gotta hit the right things each day and the good programs are going to do that. For instance, special teams is a big deal to us,” Barnes said. “I think early in the year you win a lot of games on punt team, punt block team, kickoff return, things like that. We think that gets you beat, and we think you can win games making the other teams make mistakes there. That would be easy to neglect some because you feel like you’re behind in other areas, so you want to spend time in other areas, but we’re not going to do that.
“If we carry less offense and less defense into Week 1 because of that, that’s fine, because we understand the importance of special teams. We’re being very organized and diligent about things that we think effect winning and losing the most.”