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“The goal is to keep everyone as safe as possible" as high school football returns amid COVID-19

Adam Fisher
Naples Daily News

Athletes, coaches, parents and fans finally got what they’ve longed for on Friday night since the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports almost six months ago – a sense of normalcy.

High school football returned to Florida on Friday, the first day the Florida High School Athletic Association allowed games to take place after practices began Aug. 24. Five games opened the season in Southwest Florida as area private and charter schools took to the field while Collier and Lee County public schools will wait until Sept. 17-18 to kick off.

The new normal isn’t exactly what it once was.

More:Southwest Florida Week 1 high school football scores, videos and photos

More:Week 1: CSN, First Baptist, LaBelle, Oasis win season openers; Verot falls to Jesuit

There was limited capacity at most games. Fans wore facemasks. Players spread out on the sidelines, no longer huddled together on team benches. Refs didn’t touch the ball. And certainly no handshakes among opponents, before or after the game.

All the new protocols aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 made the start of the 2020 season unique. But once the games kicked off, players and coaches say the sport remained the same.

CSN athletic director Dillon Harrington checks the temperature of game attendees, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, at the John N. Allen Family Stadium in North Naples.

“I do miss the handshakes,” said Southwest Florida Christian Academy coach Bill Moore. “It was just the before and after (the game) stuff that was a little weird. Once the game got going, you didn’t even notice.”

The changes started as soon as fans got to the stadium.

At Community School of Naples, Bishop Verot in Fort Myers and Oasis in Cape Coral, school officials performed temperature checks on fans. At four of the schools hosting games in Southwest Florida, spectators were required to wear face coverings to enter, but they were able to remove them once they sat down.

Sam Rippl, a senior at SFCA which lost 49-20 at CSN, said the coin toss was strange. Only one captain from each team met at midfield before kickoff, when teams normally send up to four players each. Then the opposing players were not allowed to shake hands.

“We kind of had to do this awkward air handshake,” Rippl said. “It was weird. But once you got out on the field, you didn’t notice.”

There also were far fewer fans than would be expected during the first Friday night of the season. Four school hosting games – Bishop Verot, CSN, LaBelle and Oasis – limited their crowds to 25 percent capacity to allow for social distancing.

The Bishop Verot athletic department separated each of its seven sections on the home side of the stadium by players’ families, cheerleaders’ families, marching band families, and the marching band. To maintain social distancing, every other row of bleachers was left vacant during Verot’s 28-21 loss to Tampa Jesuit.

More:Football is here — What will games look like, on the field and in the stands, this week?

More:Fans welcome: Lee County games at 25 percent capacity; Collier 2 tickets per household

Jesuit didn’t use its entire allotment of 150 tickets and was spread out on the visitor’s side while an extra set of bleachers on that side remained empty and the Verot student section housed only a few spectators.

Verot athletic director Jason Baumgardner understood his program’s game along with four others taking place in Southwest Florida for the first time since high school sports were shut down in mid-March were under the microscope.

“The goal is to keep everyone as safe as possible and live to see another day,” Baumgardner said. “We want to make sure people want to come back and are comfortable at Viking Stadium.”

First Baptist Academy host Gateway Charter High School during their season opening game in Naples, Friday, Sept.4, 2020.

The only school in Southwest Florida that did not limit fans or require facemasks was First Baptist Academy, which beat Gateway Charter 35-0.

At kickoff, the FBA home stands were full with nearly 200 fans. The school opened up the track around the field to allow the crowd to spread out.

Jim Ridinger, whose son Jimmy is a junior linebacker for the Lions, summed up most parents’ thoughts when he said he was just happy to see his child play. As recently as three weeks ago it was unclear if the FHSAA would have a football season.

“The kids have been working hard,” Ridinger said. “We have our seniors, they want a season. My opinion is, it’s time to play ball. It’s time to play.”

Over the last month, Vikings head coach John Mohring wasn’t sure if his team would be playing in front of fans or at all.

Oasis High School defeated Marco Island Academy during their opening game of the season with a final score of 35-14 Friday, September 4, 2020.

“We’re blessed to even be in a position to be playing in front of our families,” Mohring said.

Noticeably absent from its normal end zone seating was the Verot student section. Baumgardner said he couldn’t speculate on a date when students would be allowed into games.

“It’s a huge miss,” Baumgardner said. “(The students) are why we have these games. We put games on for the Verot community.”

Oasis hosted its season opener against Marco Island Academy at Caloosa Park in Cape Coral. There were between 300-350 fans. Though there were bleachers at the field, the Sharks did not allow fans to sit in them, opting to have them bring their own seats and spread out around the perimeter of the field.

Oasis High School defeated Marco Island Academy during their opening game of the season with a final score of 35-14 Friday, September 4, 2020.

Oasis athletic director Catherine Watters was happy with the way things worked out in the first week.

“I thought it was extremely important that our first game of the year was senior night,” Watters said. “This is a special moment not only for our families and players but our community. It’s been a crazy week, but we were just happy that our teams were able to play and we can follow proper safety protocol, and enforce social distancing so it’s a safe environment for everyone.

“To be honest, I can’t wait to sleep tonight. There have been a lot of sleepless nights. It’s taken hours on hours to make sure our protocols are taken care of and we want to be safe for our student-athletes.”

LaBelle athletic director Chris Siner said the payoff of seeing the Cowboys take the field against Evangelical Christian made all the hurdles worthwhile. 

“It’s one of the more stressful weeks I can remember,” Siner said. “Just trying to implement all the recommendations from the FHSAA, from the state, putting those in place. You’ve got to wear your mask, you’ve got to social distance. We’re 100 percent in support of the kids playing on the field and if they don’t believe that in the stands, then we’re going to side with the kids over the people in the stands any day.” 

On the field there wasn’t much difference from last season with one exception – the offensive players were responsible for tracking down and spotting the football after each play. Usually that’s the job of the officials.

The rule was implemented to reduce the number of people touching the ball. Each team supplied its own ball, and they were changed out and sanitized after each possession.

“At first it was really hard,” said Community School center Zack Danni, who was in charge of tracking down the ball for his team most the night. “I’m used to just snapping the ball, not chasing after it. I was running back and forth a lot. Definitely need to hydrate more. I was cramping in the third quarter.”

Community School of Naples football team prepares to take.on Southwest Florida Christian Academy, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, at the John N. Allen Family Stadium in North Naples.

It was stressful for the trainers and team personnel, too.

Each player had his own specific water bottle. Usually during a timeout the trainers hand any water bottle to any player, and players pass the bottles around. Not anymore. Each trainer had to keep track of which drink belonged to each player and get those drinks to those specific players, all in length of a two-minute timeout.

“It’s chaotic,” said Ryan Crosby, a student trainer at Community School and daughter of Seahawks assistant coach Rich Crosby. “It was a lot. There was a roster you had to follow, you had to change (water bottles) from offense to defense, keep track of who’s coming off (the field) and where their water is. It was a lot.”

But like the parents who adjusted to wearing masks or the players who got accustomed to chasing down footballs, Crosby said she eventually adapted to the new normal.

“It got easier,” she said. “The first half was hard. The second half wasn’t too bad.”

News-Press sports reporter Adam Regan and Naples Daily News sports reporters Greg Hardwig and Alex Martin contributed to this report.

CSN athletic director Dillon Harrington checks the temperature of game attendees, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, at the John N. Allen Family Stadium in North Naples.