Heritage Academy football coach Sean Harrison holds the business end of the plastic thermometer to Lathan Dunbar-Keys’ forehead and peers at the black digits that flash on the tiny screen.
“You’re running a little hot this morning,” Harrison jokes with the rising freshman basketball player, whose temperature is well within the normal range. (“I am?” Dunbar-Keys replies.)
Satisfied, Harrison goes through the list of questions, trying to make sure the combo guard poses no threat of spreading COVID-19 to the Patriots’ male basketball, baseball and football players at the school Tuesday morning, the second day of summer workouts on campus.
Has Dunbar-Keys been coughing? Has he felt any shortness of breath? Has he been exposed to anyone who tested positive?
No. No. No.
Before Dunbar-Keys is allowed in, the coach has one final thing to check off: recent travel out of the country.
“Did you go to Mexico last night?” Harrison asks, prompting a quick denial. Dunbar-Keys is good to go.
The encounter was part of a process that is completely new to coaches and players at high schools around the Golden Triangle area but that will become commonplace if there is to be a football season this fall and even a basketball season this winter. Monday morning marked Heritage Academy’s first workout since the coronavirus pandemic closed the school in mid-March, and Harrison said he’s pleased with how his players have adapted to the new reality.
“I think the adjustment’s been really great,” Harrison said. “It’s gone a lot smoother than I thought it would.”
Players are still getting used to things, of course. After Monday’s workout, a group of Patriots went to “break it down” by placing their outstretched arms in a circle, only to be told, “‘No, no, no, can’t do that.'”
Even for Harrison, who led the team to a 14-0 record and an MAIS Class 5A championship in 2019, coming back after a lengthy absence required some getting used to.
“It’s almost like you’ve been out of a job for a year, and you finally just go back to work,” he said.
Less is more
Twenty-eight miles away, across the Golden Triangle, the Patriots’ chief rivals are starting to get things figured out.
Starkville Academy began workouts last week, but head coach Chase Nicholson was on vacation and wasn’t able to keep up with his players.
Then he got a text from assistant Tate Fischer, who said Nicholson would be proud of how his players took it upon themselves to socially distance.
“‘They’re doing everything the right way,'” Fischer’s message read.
Upon his return, Nicholson watched Volunteers coming through the field house’s side door — not the front — just like they were instructed. Filing in after having their temperature taken and being screened for the virus, players formed an “assembly line” their head coach was happy to observe.
“It was really cool to see how well they handled that,” Nicholson said Thursday morning.
Adhering to the initial social distancing guidelines outlined by Gov. Tate Reeves, Nicholson limited occupancy to nine players and a coach in the Vols’ indoor weight room and 19 plus a coach in the outdoor weight area.
Other groups of players are assigned to Starkville Academy’s practice and playing fields. Outside, players run while harnessed to weighted sleds or hooked to bungee cords, pull on ropes and fine-tune their footwork stuff with ladders on the turf.
“It’s a little bit different with us splitting into groups, but it still feels good to be back with the guys,” rising junior quarterback Randall Futral said.
One group of players comes in from 7 to 9 a.m.; one works out from 8 to 10. Every week, the two crews switch times to give each player a chance to sleep in a little. And even after a two-month break from official activities, Nicholson said his players are handling the return to a heavier workload well.
“Of course, they’re teenagers, so it’s easy,” he said. “They’re coming in in great shape. It’s been awesome to see.”
At Caledonia High School, when head coach Michael Kelly gathered his players Monday for their first meeting of the summer, 45 of the 60-plus assembled Confederates had been doing something to stay in shape at home.
Freshman nose guard Ethan Ramirez said running and doing push-ups was about all he could do, but he was happy to do it. Sitting outside the team’s field house Tuesday, Ramirez said he was happy to once again associate with the players he hadn’t seen in months.
“It feels so good to see your teammates, all of them with a smile on their face,” he said.
Kelly said he split Ramirez and the rest of the ‘Feds into six platoons of 12 players and spread them around the field house and the practice field.
And while it’s not the same as swelling together en masse, Kelly said his team is still able to get its necessary work done — “just not maybe in the mass groups that we’re normally used to as a football team.”
Nicholson said players and coaches have both realized they must accept the changes they’re being faced with, for socially distanced football is better than no football at all.
“These guys know that the only way that we’ll continue to practice is for them to follow through with those things and make sure we’re doing it the right way,” Nicholson said. “They don’t want to be the cause of this whole thing getting shut down.”
Packing the stadium
Heritage Academy lost 13 seniors from last year’s unblemished team, and the posters, signs and banners that heralded that special group have been taken down.
It’s left Harrison with the realization that this is a new year, with mostly young — albeit promising — players.
“‘We’re gonna win,'” the coach told a colleague Monday. “‘It’s just gonna be different.'”
When it comes to the stands at C.L. Mitchell Field on Magnolia Lane — typically a packed house — just how different it could be remains to be seen.
For public schools, fan attendance at games remains uncertain. Kelly said he has received no direction from the Mississippi High School Activities Association regarding how attendance might look this fall — whether fans will be required to sit six feet apart or if they will be allowed to attend at all.
The ‘Feds open things up against New Hope at home 11 Thursdays from now, and Kelly said he expects a packed house for the contest as long as it’s allowed.
“I have no doubt come Aug. 20 they’ll be filling the stands to support our young men,” he said.
Nicholson said the capacity of Starkville Academy’s stadium will be up to what individual fans decide — whether they sit in bleachers likely to be crammed with orange and blue or sit or stand behind the fence marking the perimeter of the field.
“We plan to pack the stadium every week, so it’s gonna be on them,” he said.
The coach acknowledged attendance is somewhat of a secondary issue to whether the sport will be raring to go full tilt for the Vols’ Aug. 21 season opener.
“If we’re able to tackle each other in football, I don’t think the stadium is gonna be as big an issue,” Nicholson said.
Safety first, then hope
In the opening days and weeks of workouts, Nicholson and his fellow coaches continue to take safety precautions to make sure players and staff don’t contract the virus.
At Hebron Christian School in Pheba, bottles of Clorox, Lysol and Germ-X hand sanitizer were lined up on a white plastic folding table in the team’s field house prior to Tuesday’s inaugural workouts, which coach David Foster held outside to minimize transmission.
“We’ll be looking to play the rest of the season as long as we can stay healthy,” rising senior wide receiver Doug Loden said. (Loden said his goal is to make the playoffs, which he knows can’t be done if there are no playoffs at all.)
His classmate, running back Bradley Scott, missed out on a chance to finish out junior year with Loden and the team’s six other 2021 graduates. Scott hopes to remedy that this fall with the friends and teammates he’s been around forever.
“I’ve known most of these guys since kindergarten,” Scott said. “A lot of us started it together, so now we get to finish it together.”
And while there are still more than two months until the start of the season, players and coaches around the area are united in their hope to return to the field like normal in a year that has been anything but.
Futral acknowledged the possibility that the season could fail to start on time and consequently be pushed back into the winter, which he said would be a “huge change.”
His teammate, senior kicker Brody Pierce, said whether or not the season takes place as scheduled is “God’s plan,” but he and his teammates are fully prepared if — when, he hopes — it happens.
“We’re ready to get after it and go,” Pierce said.