Hillsborough County’s high school football teams have eased back into offseason training and hope to reintroduce the ball in Phase 3 next week.
A wave of optimism is surging through Hillsborough County’s high school football programs now that they’re allowed to get back to work.
Teams began a county-mandated three-phase process in June. After two weeks of strictly outdoor conditioning, Phase 2 allowed teams to get back into the weight rooms. If all goes well enough, teams can enter Phase 3 next week. That’s when the football itself can be brought into the picture, which will open up the ability for teams to focus more on positional drills.
“We’re going by what they county mandated for us,” Plant City head coach James Booth said.
“Thankfully we got to Phase 2 when you’re seeing a lot of other counties go back to Phase 1.”
Every program in the county has had to split the players up into separate groups for every activity they do. For example, Durant will bring one group of players — which head coach Mike Gottman called “the bigs” — into the weight room at 7 a.m. They lift until 8:30, then leave the field house so the coaching staff can buckle down and sanitize everything before the next group comes in at 8:45. While one group is lifting weights, the other is outside doing conditioning. It’s weird compared to what the Cougars and everyone else in the county is used to, but complaints are hard to come by.
“The kids were pretty good,” Gottman said.”They’re eager. They came back with a really good attitude. I don’t have anything negative to say. Some kids found ways to work out and lift, they’re looking really good. Overall, very positive behavior from them. Eagerness is there and they want to get better. They understand we have limited time, so I think them being off so long has helped their want to lift weights and get in shape. That’s been positive.”
The teams that are getting back into their weight rooms essentially have to sanitize nonstop, which means the cleaning and sanitation supplies they’re provided are getting burned through. The weights and equipment have to be wiped or sprayed down after each use and again after a group leaves. Coaches are masking up and players are all given the option to do so, as the county’s face mask ordinance does include an exemption for kids playing sports. All of the coaches want to make players and their parents feel as comfortable with the process as possible.
“There’s some fear about going into the weight room and if someone wants to wear a mask, they’re more than welcome to,” Booth said.
At least one school, Strawberry Crest, is cutting out the weight room entirely for the time being. Crest head coach Philip Prior said the Chargers likely won’t re-enter the weight room “until the season or a little longer” in an effort to nip that problem in the bud.
“It’s hard to do a lot of those things when you’ve got to disinfect everything, wipe it down and keep six feet apart,” Prior said. “Our weight room’s not really conducive to that.”
The Chargers have instead doubled down on the outdoor conditioning everyone started the three-phase process with. Prior and the Crest coaching staff put together a six-week plan focused firstly on getting everybody’s conditioning back up to where it needs to be, then adding movement drills that apply directly to the on-field product as well as some position-type drills that can be done without the football for the second phase.
“It’s been really good,” Prior said. “You can tell that our kids missed being together with the team, working out… coaches have been impressed with the kids. Kids are responding well to everything we’re putting in front of them. I’m really proud of our coaching staff and how we’ve adapted. We’ve done a great job and put together a great six-week plan.”
Teams’ inability to use the football until Phase 3 has been a hindrance, but they’re working around it to do as much as they possibly can for each position group.
“A lot of the stuff has been conditioning based and trying to incorporate some installs through the conditioning,” Booth said. “We’ve got a running conditioning emphasis per day and within the groups we have set, we’re doing some skills drills. Backpedal, cones, footwork, all that kind of stuff. We’re able to do that and not having the ball, you try to do QB footwork on the run game, drops, simulate throws, receivers can run routes — you’re just not catching it.”
As teams get more freedom to work with, they’ll have to exercise even more caution. One positive test can shut a program down for two weeks, and enough spread out around the county could force everyone to have to backpedal into a previous phase at the very least. Players and coaches have to be careful outside of practice and prove they’re coming to school every day without symptoms. Everyone knows the stakes: if you do what’s asked of you now, the likelihood of a fall sports season happening is a lot better than it otherwise could be.
“It’s just like anything else,” Gottman said. “There’s a little bit of a learning curve. We always cleaned, but we’ve got more to it now… we’ve been pretty cautious. We don’t want it to happen to us. If it does, we have to shut down.”