MFL MarMac coaches discuss pandemic’s impact on fall sports

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By Audrey Posten, Times-Register

When Iowa high school fall sports seasons kick off this week, opposing teams won’t be the only challenge athletes face this year. They’re also dealing with new health and safety measures implemented to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“Preparing for the season was difficult because we didn’t even know if the season would be delayed or cancelled,” said MFL MarMac’s head volleyball coach, Angela Adney. “The girls were given about a week’s notice that the season would be officially beginning, and practice times were adjusted to work around many commitments the girls already had scheduled.”

Now, she said, the players are expected to sanitize before they enter the gym and after they leave, the balls are sanitized every day, temperature checks are taken daily and, if anyone shows signs of COVID-19, they are expected to stay home. 

“We distance ourselves when possible, making team huddles not what they used to be,” Adney remarked.

At games, traveling teams will be required to bring their own balls for warm-ups, teams will not switch benches between sets and players will not shake hands, in addition to increased sanitization and distancing.

“The girls are responding well to the precautions we are taking and have carried on the best they can without letting the pandemic get in the way of their season,” Adney shared.

For cross country, MFL MarMac head coach Eric Koenig said the biggest change was to the team’s use of the weight room—or lack thereof. He cut out indoor activities almost entirely while the weather is nice. 

“We don’t have to spend any time sanitizing or maintaining distancing recommendations this way, which means no down time during practice,” he noted.

To make up for that time in the weight room, Koenig incorporated more body weight exercises that he said are more beneficial for high school runners than hitting the heavy weights every day. Athletes can do the exercises spread out and as a team, which helps with motivation. 

“I’ve also tried to make sure that big groups of kids aren’t running together, and encourage the kids to run individually, yet keep them all on the same routes, so that everyone is always in sight,” he explained.

Cross country meets will also be slightly different. The start line will be the most noticeable change, with six feet of distance between the teams. Koenig said this should keep the kids safer, and shouldn’t have much effect on the race itself. 

“You may see some masks being worn by the athletes,” he added. “Otherwise, it’s not a contact sport and we aren’t sharing a ball with the other teams, so races should go on as usual.”

Some of the biggest COVID-19-related challenges have come in football because it’s a contact sport, said MFL MarMac coach Dan Anderson. The Bulldogs have been diligent in following guidelines laid out by the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA). That includes taking the temperature of every athlete before practice. Managers, he said, have been excellent during water breaks, sanitizing footballs and tackling dummies and bags.

“We have more individual time with our players, so they’re not in large groups,” he shared. “During our stretching time, we’ve spread our guys out more—10 feet apart rather than five or six.”

Students are also spread out in the weight room, and they work out in pods, to limit intermingling. When kids are lifting, Anderson said a spotter is never directly over another person. Instead, two spotters are on the ends of the bar.

During games, the IHSAA has expanded the sidelines, allowing more room to spread out. 

“It used to be to the 25 yard lines, now it’s from the 10 to the 10, so they added 30 more total yards to spread out for the players,” Anderson stated. “The coaches are still confined to that 25 to 25.”

In addition, the referees will stop the game every four minutes to have athletes get hydrated and to sanitize their hands and the football. 

Even with the precautions, “the fact is football is a contact sport,” Anderson said. “There is contact on every play, and there’s no way to make it 100 percent social distanced. But we’re doing as much as we can to separate players when we don’t have to be making contact, to mitigate and slow the spread of the virus and try to protect our athletes.”

The relative statewide success of the summer baseball and softball seasons has made him optimistic for the fall.

“There are going to be some cases across the state. We’re not going to be able to hide from it whether we play football or not,” he acknowledged. “Obviously, if someone comes in contact with someone who tests positive, you have to quarantine, so you could see teams who end up having to shut down for two weeks. We hope it’s not our team.”

Anderson said he and the players are thankful to have a season at all, even if it’s modified. It’s an important part of the school experience for the players. 

“Football is more than just a game,” he stressed. “It’s a way to learn valuable life lessons.”

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