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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

This Is Our One Shot: High School Football Begins With Extra Precautions

Most high schools in the region have delayed football practice because of the coronavirus pandemic. One exception is Lake Norman High School in Iredell County, where coaches and players are practicing football differently this year.

Twelve football players lined up on the field on a day this week, waiting their turn to start a drill where they side shuffle over foam barriers. It was the start of the 8 a.m. practice at Lake Norman High School. The blue face mask that defensive line coach Tim Wall wore wasn't the only noticeable difference this year.

"Stay separated, stay separated!" Wall shouted.

Coaches had to constantly remind players to stay six feet apart at all times. And when athletes arrived, they dropped their gear in a pile at a designed spot, at least 10 feet away from anyone else’s.

Head coach Jonathan Oliphant believes he’d taken all the precautions he can to practice safely.

Head Coach Jonathan Oliphant explains how the pod system works for Lake Norman High School's socially distanced summer football practices.
Credit Michael Falero / WFAE
Head coach Jonathan Oliphant explains how the pod system works for Lake Norman High School's socially distanced summer football practices.

"We want you to come on to campus, work out and leave as quickly and safely as possible," Oliphant said. "Kids have done a good job of it, they understand that we want to see them every day. We love 'em, we want to hang out with them. But if we don’t do what we can and something does happen and we get shut down, and that’s not what everyone wants."

Oliphant’s program uses a “pod” system to reduce the risk of coronavirus spread. Six groups practice separately, with two dozen athletes in each of them. If one person tests positive for the coronavirus, then that pod quarantines and the others continue.

But Oliphant believes if even one of the 125 kids gets sick, then the entire program would be shut down. He said they have one shot at practicing football safely. Some of the players, especially the seniors, seem aware of how tenuous the situation is. 

"It’s been going good, it’s been a little weird separating, because I don’t see my whole team anymore," rising senior Anthony Limon said. "But other than that it’s pretty usual. You see the same people every day, every 24 kids, just show up, grind out for 40 minutes, and then leave."

Gavin Gibson is a rising junior. He said the restrictions mean the team is missing out on other drills they’d usually be doing.

"I don’t like it at all, because it’s like, we’re not doing too much position training, it's more like conditioning, and just getting our bodies right, if we can play this year," Gibson said.

School districts throughout the state have been figuring out how to apply guidance released in early June by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association and the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. The document outlines how schools and coaches should limit group sizes, screen students for symptoms, and what to do if someone tests positive for the coronavirus. But the document went out just as North Carolina and many other southern states began to see a rise in coronavirus cases. Que Tucker is the commissioner for the NCHSAA. She said the guidance doesn’t mean teams won’t have cases.

"When you start bringing people back together, there is that concern that this is going to be when we see the cases," Tucker said. "And we know we’re going to see cases. That’s not the question. The question is, how do we prevent it from spreading throughout our entire team?"

Some school districts, including Iredell-Statesville, started practice on June 15. Other districts planned to start training on July 6, after a mandated off week. But Cabarrus and Gaston Counties’ school districts recently delayed their start date to July 20. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools also postponed their start, but didn’t give a new date.

Melinda Forthofer is a professor at UNC Charlotte’s Departent of Public Health Sciences. She said the guidelines the association provided are pretty good, but could be better. Forthofer said coaches and parents need specific tips for how to talk to students and communicate the importance of following public health guidelines, including how to actually maintain social distance in the real world.

"Kids are gonna forget," Forthofer said. "So I think that they do need their coaching staff and their parents and families to really ... lay that out for the staff and the family members so that they can be having those conversations."

Forthofer said those tips would help address what the guidance doesn’t cover -- that athletes still could get exposed through friends or at a part-time job and then bring the virus to practice.

Linebacker Coach Thomas Harris sprays an exercise band a player just used for squat exercises.
Credit Michael Falero / WFAE
Linebacker coach Thomas Harris sprays an exercise band a player just used for squat exercises.

Back at the field, the team’s morning practice was almost over. Assistant coaches cleaned the equipment immediately, spraying sanitizer from an industrial canister onto resistance bands the athletes just used. It remains to be seen if any of these players, of football or any other high school sport, will see a season this fall. Oliphant and his players said they’re hoping for as many games they can get.

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Michael Falero is a radio reporter, currently covering voting and the 2020 election. He previously covered environment and energy for WFAE. Before joining WFAE in 2019, Michael worked as a producer for a number of local news podcasts based in Charlotte and Boston. He's a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop intensive on Cape Cod and UNC Chapel Hill.