By TIM KELLY
Running pass patterns at football practice has again given way to a holding pattern for New Jersey high school teams.
Just when it looked like the first football that local fans could watch would be at the high school level, the COVID-19 crisis proved to be the ultimate arbiter on when the season would open up.
“I know everyone is nervous and/or frustrated,” Ocean City Head Coach Kevin Smith related to parents and friends of the program in an email. “I am too.”
Smith’s frustration and that of the other coaches, as well as players, parents and fans, is understandable.
Everything looked to be on track just two weeks ago when Smith and other New Jersey coaches were given the word from the governing body of high school sports that “Phase 1” of football startup could take place on July 13 and that after two weeks a re-evaluation would take place for moving to Phase 2.
“Long and specific” directions were given to coaches by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) for the first practices to take place with strict social distancing guidelines, Smith said in a recent interview.
For example, initial drills were to take place in groups no larger than 10 players, he said, and no contact was allowed. That meant players would be assigned to groups by position, each presided over by a different coach.
While the Phase 1 guidelines were not ideal and did not allow for traditional “11 on 11” drills, it was still football practice by any measure, and Smith said he and the players were excited.
Further encouragement came the next week when dates and times for the first sessions were announced by Smith, as well as a Freshman Orientation program for newcomers to be held virtually, using Zoom meeting technology.
Coming off their best season in 20 years, the Red Raiders return 16 starting players from a team that went 9-3, including two postseason victories and a berth in the South Jersey title game. Optimism and excitement were palpable.
Not so fast.
School district superintendents from Atlantic and Cape May counties decided not to open on July 13, Smith announced. The good news, he said, was that the schools still would plan for a season, with Phase 1 pushed back to July 27 as the new target date.
“Although (the NJSIAA) has cleared schools for Phase 1, leagues, counties and individual districts have the right to decline if they feel it is unsafe,” Smith explained. “The recent spike in COVID-19 cases has prompted our local counties to make that call. So we wait.”
The initial impact of the call: The actual first scheduled game, a highly anticipated matchup with neighboring power Holy Spirit initially set for Sept. 3, would have to be re-set and the entire season would be pushed back by at least a week.
Though frustrating, a delay or for that matter a shortened season is preferable to a canceled one. The College of New Jersey and an increasing number of college programs have done just that. TCNJ went so far as to cancel all fall semester contact sports, including men’s and women’s basketball and soccer.
Thus, Smith and the Red Raiders keep hope alive and tend to things they still control: team culture, resolve and preparation for that day when the sound of pads colliding will again be heard at Carey Stadium.
Though not of his making, the coach apologized to parents for the “fluid” situation. “I realize this can affect family vacations and other plans,” he said.
Smith urged parents to take care of paperwork and other administrative details, to keep an eye on their sons’ workouts and diets and be ready for the opening signal whenever it happens. He pledged to pass along any solid information as it becomes available.
“We have a great group of young men coming back and I can’t wait to get started,” Smith said.