A welcome sight

Handley head football coach Larry Strain walks the field during the first day of practice last August. A plan from state superintendent Eric Mackey could lead to a return to the field for the upcoming football season.

A glimmer of hope has emerged for the sports-starved landscape in Alabama after state superintendent of education Eric Mackey laid out a tentative timeline for how schools might allow athletes to return to the field.

Mackey revealed a plan last week that would allow athletes and coaches to return to official training activities on a limited basis as early as June 8.

The plan leaves plenty of unanswered questions, but the fact that it has dates attached to it gives coaches something somewhat concrete to start building their own internal timelines and plans.

“The reason why that date is helpful is now you can plan for that,” said Handley head football coach Larry Strain. “Before, there was no planning. Nobody knew. Really all the way up to this point, what do you do? You send [the players] an email or send them a text, but there’s nothing to plan. There’s no hope. At least it looks like there’s hope now to get back to some type of normalcy.”

If realized, Mackey’s plan would allow students on campus in groups of 10 or fewer starting June 8.

“Definitely that’s important,” said Woodland head coach Blair Armstrong. “Now you’ve got some goals you can set. Before it was just up in the air and you didn’t know.”

Armstrong is in a particularly unusual situation with Woodland as he now enters his second season without ever having gone through a spring practice with the team.

He took the Woodland job in late July last season, and this year spring practice was canceled when schools were shut down in March.

“This is tough on me. I missed last spring and last summer, and here I am already missing my second spring,” Armstrong said.

The limitation to groups of 10 or fewer would create some challenges, but Strain said he was already working on a plan to work within those restrictions.

“The thought process is we’re going to be able to go back in small groups, one coach, nine players,” Strain said. “And then you can do with them whatever you want to do with them. My thought process is probably no more than two or three groups on campus at a time and none of them can come in contact with each other, so you’re going to have to figure out some type of rotation.”

For Strain, communicating with his players the details of a schedule full of rotating position groups presents its own challenge. Coaches are not currently allowed to meet with their teams as a group, so each player must be contacted individually. With upwards of 70-80 players in junior high and high school, reliable contact information can be difficult to ascertain.

And then there’s another issue.

“I always go into spring not really knowing who all is on my team. I mean, you know 90 percent of the folks that are going to be there, but you always let new kids come out during that time. You have somebody play that didn’t play last year, that kind of thing,” Strain said. “Now you’re in limbo. I may not contact a kid because I didn’t know he was wanting to play. There’s going to be some of that.”

That task is not as tall at a smaller school like Woodland, where Armstrong said he has been able to keep some sort of contact with almost all of his players.

“I spent a lot of time getting to personally know our players with our offseason workouts,” Armstrong said. “I talked to them constantly, got really close to them and built relationships. So that part of it is not an issue.”

According to Mackey’s plan, the June return to activity would be the first step in a process that ultimately ends with schools re-opening sometime in August. That would allow football to return at or close to its normal time. The Alabama high school football season typically begins the last Friday in August or the first Friday in September.

All possibilities for how a football season would be played are still on the table. That includes playing in empty stadiums.

“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” Armstrong said.

As the Woodland program has struggled through five consecutive losing seasons and three coaching changes in that time, attendance – and the revenue that comes with it – has waned. Playing games with no fans at all would create a serious financial hardship for programs like Woodland.

“Playing is better than not playing,” Armstrong said. “But fans are an important part of the season for young folks and to be able to give them what they need.”

Strain has coached in a somewhat fan-less environment, and said that if it comes to that it will be an unusual experience.

“It’s going to be totally different,” Strain said. “It’s going to be like coaching at Leeds when you don’t have anybody sitting behind you hollering. That’s the most weird game that I have to coach in, every time I have to go to Leeds. There’s no stands on that side. It’s noticeably different.”

But given what happened with the cancellation of all spring sports, the idea of football in any form this fall is a welcome thought.

“I think we have to try to have football season,” Strain said. “If there’s anything in the south that makes us feel normal and getting on with life, it’s football.”

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