Football has never seen a delay of game like this.
There won’t be high school football this fall in Colorado. The same goes for the colleges of Adams State, Colorado Mesa, Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University-Pueblo, Fort Lewis, Northern Colorado and Western Colorado. Only time will tell if the University of Colorado can play a successful Pac-12 Conference season this fall, and the same can be said for Air Force and Colorado State in the Mountain West Conference.
The cancellation of high school football was the result of a decision made this week by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, state health officials and the Colorado High School Activities Association after weeks of hope that the season would go on. Now, CHSAA will target a football season in the spring with practices to start Feb. 22 and games to begin March 3. Whether or not there can be a spring season remains to be seen.
The chance for spring football will be determined by the potential for a vaccine for the new coronavirus or, at the very least, Americans’ ability to get any kind of control on the virus that has nearly 5 million confirmed cases and more than 160,000 deaths in the U.S., while the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation warned the dead count could rise to 300,000 by Dec. 1.
There was hope for fall football in the summer. In early May, coronavirus cases across the U.S. began to decrease with minor spikes. Teams were able to being workouts in small groups of no more than 25 on a single field. But from June 15 to July 24, cases spiraled out of control with 75,000 new cases in a day on July 17 and another 74,000 on July 24 before numbers started to retreat to some degree. Still, there were more than 50,000 new cases in the U.S. on Tuesday when CHSAA was forced to pull the plug on its fall football season, as well as the fall seasons for boys soccer and girls volleyball.
CHSAA’s plan has provided some hope for a season this school year, but now it is imperative those in the football community use that opportunity the right way. Many area coaches and players are already looking to do that.
“There is a lot of craziness in the world right now,” said Mancos High School assistant football coach Alan Matthews. “We are just thankful and happy, more than anything, to have a spring season. I know a lot of people right now are frustrated with things being out of their control. But our message to our kids is to be grateful and to look forward to next season a day at a time.
“I think it is important to look for solutions and not problems with this situation. Each school is going to have its own challenges. But, in a small town like Mancos, a lot of kids are going to have an opportunity this year maybe they normally wouldn’t. They will get to spend more time with their families in the fall fishing and hunting. You have to look for those solutions.”
Still, some problems were created by moving the season that cannot be ignored. Small schools and senior athletes will struggle with the postponement more than others.
Twenty-four states have decided to press forward and try to host fall football as regularly scheduled, including Colorado’s neighbors Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma Utah and Wyoming. Another 13 states aim to play in 2020 with slightly delayed seasons.
For players, particularly seniors, the biggest concern of a delayed season comes in recruiting. Durango High School senior quarterback Jordan Woolverton is one of the top quarterbacks in all of Colorado. His fall senior season was going to be crucial toward getting well-deserved Division I offers. Some coaches, high school and private, around the state have begun to set up combine type showcases for players this fall to help them gain exposure. Woolverton still attended some college camps this summer, but many were canceled because of the pandemic. But nothing would compare to being able to showcase his skills on the field.
“It throws a big wrinkle. A lot of schools want to see what you do your senior year before they fully invest in you,” Woolverton said. “With the season being pushed back, it definitely makes it tough knowing you have to wait that much longer in the process to know what you are going to do with your life after this season.”
Woolverton was on track to finish high school in December. That would give him the ability to do what teammate Carver Willis did a year ago in finishing high school early to enroll in college for the spring semester to be on campus for spring practices and get a head start on college ball. If Woolverton gets a major Division I offer this fall, he said he is not sure what he will do. He will be tasked with a difficult decision of going to college early or staying in Durango to finish his senior year of high school football and basketball.
“Honestly, I’m not really sure what I’m going to do with all of that,” Woolverton said. “I’m just going to play it by ear and see what happens.”
Woolverton isn’t the only Demons player who will look to sign a football scholarship this year. Vogt said Colorado players will now be behind every other senior in the country that does get to play a fall season.
“If other teams are playing and get to showcase their skills early, colleges are more likely to pull the trigger on the guys,” Vogt said. “But, the hope is that if you’re good enough, colleges will still find you.”
Ignacio High School head coach Alfonso “Ponch” Garcia was among the disappointed coaches in Colorado when the news of a postponement came down Tuesday. He said potential overlap of basketball and baseball seasons on the two ends of the new football season could be especially damaging to a small Bobcats roster that is full of multi-sport athletes.
“This whole thing is affecting our little school,” said Garcia, who said his team had a successful two week full-pad camp this summer. “Our same football athletes are playing basketball and baseball. The small schools are getting screwed by the whole thing. If a football season starts Feb. 22, basketball is still going on. Our school is successful with basketball, so what’s going to happen with football? You could say I’m a little on the upset side. We were going to start Monday. We were excited and ready to go with 22 kids. We were super stoked, but now here we go.”
But there was no hope in Colorado if the governor would not allow groups of more than 25 to participate on the field. Even the smallest high schools in Colorado have at least 20 players per roster. Add coaches, referees, athletic trainers and sideline crews, and the number would have to increase to at least 50 for a football game to be held, and that is if players not on the field spread out across stadiums until they were needed on the field.
And while a spring season will have some overlap with basketball and baseball with CHSAA’s new four-part season, CHSAA representatives worked hard to not have too much crossover to allow athletes a chance to play in all of their sports. Small-school multi-sport athletes may have more difficulty in some crossover, but there was no perfect solution while still trying to host all sports this school year.
“Traditionally in a normal season, teams that go on to compete deep into the postseason have an overlap with the next sport season starting. The quadrant model is no different in this regard except that the tables are turned and football will wait for basketball players and wrestlers competing in the postseason instead of those sports waiting for football players to finish, as we have become accustomed,” said CHSAA assistant commissioner Adam Bright. “Along those same lines, players coming into football from another sport have the minimum practice requirement of nine practices waived per the CHSAA bylaws, just as those players have had basketball and wrestling practice requirements waived in the past.”
The biggest concern for schools, especially those geographically isolated on the Western Slope and across Southwest Colorado, is travel restrictions and scheduling. League champions will not be guaranteed a spot in the eight-team playoffs, making strength of schedule and winning each week, even in the non-league portion of the seven-week schedule, more important than ever.
“We gotta play really good teams,” said Durango High School head coach David Vogt. “We gotta get Montrose to stay on the schedule. But a lot is going to be dependent on travel. We don’t know if we will be able to stay overnight on any trips by March. We have to talk to our league opponents in Colorado Springs and see if maybe we can play halfway at Adams State in Alamosa or something. Maybe make every league game at 3 p.m. on a Saturday so we don’t have to spend the night.”
Weather, too, will be more of a factor with a winter and spring season in Colorado. While football can be played in inclement winter weather, it only adds to the travel headaches for teams, especially those traveling over mountain passes such as Wolf Creek.
While all of those problems still need answers in the coming months, there is plenty football players and coaches can do right now to make sure time isn’t wasted this fall.
Teams are still able to practice if their school district gives approval. Right now, any kind of joint practices against other regional schools is not permitted, but all of the local coaches said they hope to work on the logistics to be able to get some form of seven-on-seven practices against other teams in the next few months.
“We have to keep kids involved and give them something,” Vogt said. “Schools need to provide opportunities and help keep kids out of trouble through sports. For athletes, having that structure of practice and competition is huge. Whatever we can organize this fall, we need to do that.”
Montezuma-Cortez High School first year head coach Ivan Mack said the Panthers will use this time off to work on getting bigger and faster. With a young squad and a new coach, he said the extra time to prepare can only help his team.
“This whole thing is disappointing, but we understand and kind of almost expected it,” Mack said. “We always talked about the possibility of there not even being a season, so the fact we are going to get a spring season is a great opportunity. Whatever we can get approval for this fall, it will be a big advantage for us.”
There won’t be the Americana joy of Friday night football in Colorado this year. There will be plenty more challenges ahead for a spring season to be had, and it will be a difficult year even if teams do get back on the field in March. But the opportunity to play the game again in 2021 will continue to drive area coaches and players.
Like all of the downtime created already by the COVID-19 pandemic, the next few months should now be viewed as an opportunity and not lost time. And if state or conference champions are crowned the first week of May, it will be evident which teams did the best job of that.
“When I first heard, it was tough. Everyone is bummed, and it’s a tough bullet to bite,” Woolverton said. “But it’s all about how you come out of it at the end of the day. I know we are going to make sure our team comes out of it very strong. This is a perfect time to separate ourselves from other teams in the state by working hard during this time. We need to use it as a tool instead of something bad that happened.”
John Livingston is the regional sports editor of Ballantine Communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jlivi2.