High school coaches navigate NCHSAA’s plan for February football

The state’s new 2020-21 athletic calendar presents unique challenges

High school football teams across the state will have to wait until at least February to play this academic year. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

Football coaches, by nature, are famous for adjusting on the fly. It’s something they do at halftime of virtually every game their teams play.

So when the North Carolina High School Athletic Association announced last week that its fall sports season has been pushed back to the spring, the reaction among the state’s coaches wasn’t one of disappointment, anger or panic.

Instead, it was received as a call to action and adjustment.

“All through the summer, all I wanted was a plan to tell me when we were going to start so that I could prepare,” said Shelby High coach Mike Wilbanks said. “Now I have that. It’s not an ideal situation, but I don’t think anybody out there thinks that things are perfect, the way they want it. We’ll figure it out and do what we can to make it work.”

Although athletes were allowed to resume offseason training in June, the NCHSAA originally delayed the start of its school athletic season to Sept. 1. But when Gov. Roy Cooper extended restrictions under Phase 2 of the state’s coronavirus reopening plan until at least Sept. 11, further adjustments to the schedule became necessary.

The most significant aspect of the new calendar, which was announced last Wednesday, involves football.

The regular season will now begin on Feb. 8 and end no later than April 9. It will consist of only seven games with no decision yet on how or if a postseason playoff would be structured.

NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker stressed that all dates “are dependent on COVID-19 conditions improving” across the state, but she added that the move represents “the best path forward to a safe return to the field.”

It’s not the best of situations. But according to Todd Willert, coach of two-time defending 4A state champion East Forsyth, playing seven games in the spring is better than no games at all.”

As happy as he and his players are to have a season, Willert points out that “there are a lot of unanswered questions out there right now.”

Among the most frequently asked involve how the delayed season will be structured, what players and coaches can and can’t do in the months leading up to the first games, how many of those players will choose to enroll in college early rather than play in the spring, and what if any changes will be made to the NCHSAA’s eligibility rules given the unprecedented circumstances.

There’s a lot of logistics to be worked out.

At East Forsyth, players who are normally enrolled in weight training class during the spring semester as part of their team’s offseason conditioning program will now have to adjust their schedules.

At Shelby, where several prominent athletes play more than one sport, the football team will now have to wait for basketball season to end before having a full roster instead of the other way around.

“It’s going to be interesting. It’s going to be fun,” Wilbanks said. “Coaches are going to have to be flexible.”

“Coaches are all creatures of habit, to say the least,” Richard Bailey of Scotland High School added. “And this pandemic has thrown everything out of rhythm.”

Because of the disruption of the normal routine, coaches have already begun lobbying the NCHSAA to relax its rules so that they can supervise their players’ preparations rather than leave the task up to unreliable third parties.

“We’ve got to be able to find creative ways so we can still coach our kids this fall,” Bailey said. “I’ve been talking with a lot of coaches about trying to play some seven-on-seven because we weren’t able to do that this summer.

“The state right now says that we can’t coach more than 10 of our kids on a team at any time out of season. We’re hoping Que says we can treat this fall like it was summer in that we can work out with our kids while still abiding by the rules until the governor says we can get out there in full.”

Of greater concern than the rules regarding practice are those dealing with academics.

Athletes in North Carolina are required to pass three of four classes each semester to be eligible for athletic competition. Because the state temporarily changed its grading policy and allowed all students to be promoted following the COVID-interrupted spring semester, everyone would have been eligible for a fall season.

With the shift to spring and a return to the old rules, keeping players eligible could become an even more tricky proposition than usual.

“You might have to break some kids out of some bad habits,” said Will Bland of Greenville’s Rose High School, who in addition to adjusting to a new schedule is also navigating his way through a new experience as a first-time head coach.

“Last semester it was like, ‘You don’t even need to do the work because they’re going to promote you anyway.’ Now everything will be graded again, so now you’ve got to make them work for something.”

Shelby’s Wilbanks is hoping that the promise of actually playing football again will be enough of a motivational carrot to get his players back on the right track now that a schedule has finally been set.

“These kids are intelligent. They know what’s going on in the world,” he said. “I think their biggest thing was the relief of knowing they’re not in limbo anymore. Now we all go on from here.”

Or as East Forsyth’s Willert put it: “We might not have football in 2020, but in 2021, we’re going get all we want.”