Players, coaches eager to start spring football after missing out last year due to COVID

Adam Fisher
Naples Daily News

One year ago this week, Elgin Hicks was brand new to Island Coast High School and eager to meet with the football team he’d just been hired to lead.

In any other year Hicks would have gotten a head start on the fall season during spring football – four weeks of practices plus an exhibition game allowed by the Florida High School Athletic Association.

However, last year spring football was canceled during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools were closed and most of the country still was under a stay-at-home order in late April 2020.

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Dunbar High School hosted Island Coast Friday Evening November, 20, 2020 for a Class 6A Quarterfinal play-off matchup. The Dunbar Tigers won with a final score of 27-39.

“Last year I thought it was the end of the world that was didn’t have spring football and we weren’t able to install (offense and defense),” Hicks said. “Now this year, knowing what we have, it’s huge having a spring. We can have a true evaluation (of players). We can get these kids better and get them developed to help us in the fall.”

Spring football is back this year. Starting Monday high school teams in Florida are allowed to take the field for 20 practices, which includes a game at the end of May.

While teams are eager to take the field for the first time since November, they’re also hoping spring football signals a return to normalcy in 2021.

New coaches, young teams hurt the most

After teams missed out on spring football last year, the fall season was in doubt as late as August. Eventually, the football season went on, but it looked much different due to the coronavirus. The season started late, teams played fewer games, travel was restricted and so was attendance.

With spring football looking more or less like it has every other year, teams are celebrating it as a return to normal – although coaches stress that COVID-19 safety protocols remain in place.

“When you reflect on last year – not having spring and everything that was going on – it’s a blessing to be where we’re at,” Naples High coach Rick Martin said.

Naples High School football coach Rick Martin carries the Coconut Bowl trophy after his team defeated Lely 16-6, Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, at Lely High School.

The lack of spring ball in 2020 was toughest on first-year coaches, like Hicks and Martin, who needed the extra time to jell with their teams.

Martin had an advantage because he wasn’t entirely new to his team, like Hicks. Martin played at Naples and had been an assistant coach in the program since he graduated in 2002.

However, the Golden Eagles were inexperienced last season, with only seven returning starters. Martin said missing out on spring practice was evident in the fall when Collier and Lee public school teams had just two weeks of practice before their first games.

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In Naples’ first game, the Eagles committed five turnovers which led to 31 points in a 38-0 loss to Palmetto Ridge. It was Naples’ worst regular-season loss in 23 years.

“Last year, not having a spring affected us by not giving the experience we needed as a young team,” said Golden Eagles rising senior safety Devin Moore. “We had first-year varsity players all over the field, and a spring would have been really beneficial.”

Getting closer to normal

Todd Nichols was hired as Gulf Coast’s head coach a month before the pandemic hit. He had joined the Sharks staff as an assistant the year before, so he knew the players. Still, not having a spring session – especially being out of school for five months – made it hard for Nichols to fill out his coaching staff.

“That was the difficult part, getting a staff in place so they could start building relationships with the players so they can be comfortable around us and start gaining confidence.”

Conditioning workouts resumed for high school athletes in June, but coaches were forced to adapt to new safety guidelines from the school system, the state, and the Centers for Disease Control. Those guidelines could change depending on the number of COVID-19 cases.

Gulf Coast High School takes on Palmetto Ridge High School during a Friday night football match-up in  Naples, Oct. 30, 2020. (Photo/Chris Tilley)

Now that it's been a year, and 39 percent of Florida’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, coaches feel like they’re getting out of the shadow of the coronavirus.

“Last summer, I feel like things just got thrown together because of everything we had to deal with,” Nichols said. “Right now, going into spring, we’re on a regimen that we’re comfortable with.

“I wouldn’t say we’re back to normal – there still are guidelines we have to follow – but what’s in place now is a little bit more normal to what we’re used to. It’s a good feeling.”

Gulf Coast High School takes on Palmetto Ridge High School during a Friday night football match-up in  Naples, Oct. 30, 2020. (Photo/Chris Tilley)

Adapt and Overcome

Although coaches would have preferred to have spring ball last year, they’re also able to take positives away from missing out on the practices.

The chaos surrounding sports and the world in general 12 months ago taught coaches and players about adaptability. In fact, Josh Nicholson turned that lesson into a motto at Mariner.

After four years as an assistant with the Tritons, Nicholson was promoted to head coach last year. With so many obstacles in the way of a football season, Nichols made “Adapt and Overcome” the theme for the 2020 season.

“If anything we adapted to things not being normal,” Nicholson said. “We had to have a plan in place but be ready to change and adapt as we go. We learned to prepare for anything.”

Mariner High School defensive coordinator Josh Nicholson was promoted to the Tritons' head coaching position on Jan. 24.

Looking back Hicks, the first-year Island Coast coach also thinks losing out on spring might have had surprise advantages. Because his first interaction with his new players didn’t come on a field, the coach got to know his new players on a personal level through phone calls and Zoom meetings.

The results show that Hicks might be right. Island Coast went 6-4 last season after winning just 10 games the previous five seasons combined. The Gators also won a playoff play-in game and beat perennial playoff program South Fort Myers in the regional quarterfinals.

“We were able to bond first so that when it came to actual football and yelling at them on the field, they didn’t look at me like I was crazy,” Hicks said. “I didn’t have to win them over while trying to cram in 20 (spring) practices.”

Spring Football Schedule

Thursday, May 20

Lehigh at Lely

St. Pete Catholic at St. John Neumann

Friday, May 21

East Lee County at Golden Gate

Cypress Lake at Naples

Gateway Charter at LaBelle

Gulf Coast at Key West

Cape Coral, Estero at Ida Baker

Immokalee at Bonita Springs

Port Charlotte at North Fort Myers

Saturday, May 22

First Baptist at Palm Beach Lakes (Spring Jamboree)

Thursday, May 27

Riverdale at Hardee

Oasis at Mariner

Barron Collier at South Fort Myers

Lake Wales, Palmetto Ridge at Fort Myers

Friday, May 28

Sarasota at Bishop Verot

Lemon Bay at ECS

Gateway at SFCA

Island Coast at Dunbar