As if high school football coaches weren’t busy enough, another layer was added to their duties when the coronavirus pandemic hit. When fall sports teams were allowed to start summer conditioning workout sessions on June 22, it marked the beginning of a new era for longtime football coaches like Hollister’s Bryan Smith, Christopher’s Tim Pierleoni and Live Oak’s Mike Gemo.
They enter an unprecedented era in which face masks, temperature checks and physical distancing are all a part of their lexicon and every bit as important as no-huddle, blitz and special-teams. Adhering to health and safety guidelines, the coaches had to put a system in place that makes everyone who is involved with the team—from players, coaches, staff members and parents—comfortable.
For a program like San Benito High that can draw upwards of 90 to 100 players for conditioning sessions, the check-in system could’ve been exhausting. Instead, the Haybalers have gotten pretty efficient at doing a passive screening—where coaches ask the players a series of questions—before doing the active screening of taking everyone’s temperature.
“I have eight coaches in the morning (for 6:30am conditioning sessions), and they’re checking in 12 guys each,” Smith said. “That happens in five minutes.”
Teams are allowed to have a maximum grouping of 12 players, or a cohort, under the guidance of one coach, and coaches are required to wear face masks or shields at all times. The six feet of minimum spacing between participants can be difficult to adhere to at times.
“It’s hard when you have to be six feet apart, but we do the best we can,” Pierleoni said.
“That has probably been the biggest challenge, but I’d like to think we’re doing a good job,” Smith said. “It’s not perfect, and I’m sure you can easily find areas to nitpick.”
Conditioning sessions have been limited to 90 minutes, which puts a premium on every team to make the most of its time. Christopher has a strength and conditioning coach who leads the players through a variety of drills and bodyweight exercises. Since athletes are not allowed to gather inside the weight room, Live Oak brings several 45-pound plates to the field so the players can utilize them for strength-training.
Gemo has had the players do a lot of drills, running, bodyweight and plyometric exercises. With student-athletes stuck in limbo for the last four months, the coaches are simply happy they’re back together and getting their players active again.
“It’s great to get them off the couch and off their Playstations or whatever they’re playing,” Gemo said. “They get to work out and do something social, and that’s great.”
Pierleoni echoed similar sentiments and said, “We’re not trying to kill them (with workouts) because a lot of them didn’t have much to do in the last couple of months.”
Indeed, Smith said he can tell which players were active during quarantine time, and which players took it easy. In the last couple of weeks, Smith has enjoyed the little things that remind him of why he became a coach in the first place.
“I’m seeing a lot of smiles on kids’ faces,” he said. “Even though the circumstances are much different, in a sense it’s refreshing. Although we might not be able to put in as much time as we would like, we get enough in just to satisfy the needs of the kids right now. You can definitely see the camaraderie coming back.”
Smith, who is a P.E. teacher at San Benito High, relished the opportunity to physically gather after literally getting Zoomed out of his mind from having to use the videocommunications tool for his classes and meetings with faculty and his assistant coaches.
“There are only so many Zoom meetings you can do,” Smith said. “I got a sense in the spring when we were doing offense/defense meetings in Zoom, the guys have had enough. You see some really long faces on the videos, and as a coach and teacher, you find yourself thinking, ‘Gosh, am I talking to myself, or are they responding?’ A kid just went off video, I can’t see their face and you don’t know if the kid is even there anymore.”
The California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), the state’s de facto governing body of high school sports, will make a decision by July 20 whether the upcoming fall season will begin as scheduled. CIF State Commissioners and the commissioners of the 10 high school sports sections—including recently retired Central Coast Section Commissioner Duane Morgan—have held several meetings in the last month to discuss all of the scenarios for the fall sports season. Morgan, who worked out of the CCS San Jose office, broke a complex issue down rather succinctly.
“I can’t give you a very good answer because there isn’t a very good answer at this time,” he said. “Basically, we’re waiting to get the green light from the governor’s office, from each county health department, board of supervisors and superintendents. That is a lot of governing bodies to work with who are trying to help us and figure out a way of what we’re going to do with sports.”