With the central Kenai Peninsula at medium risk level, practices for football, cross-country running and cheerleading can start today for Kenai Central, Soldotna and Nikiski high schools, with certain restrictions in place.
With so many unknowns looming due to the new coronavirus pandemic, those involved with sports at the schools say they will follow procedures and guidelines, and take things one step at a time.
“My old coach Bob Boudreaux used to tell us to control the controllables,” Soldotna football coach Galen Brantley Jr. said of his football coach when he attended SoHi. “That keeps popping back into my head.
“There’s so many things outside of our control. I have no idea whether we will have a season. I have one practice tomorrow. That’s the only thing I can control.”
The Alaska School Activities Association has already pushed the first contest for football and cross-country running back a week to Aug. 20.
Nikiski athletic director Dylan Hooper said that knocks out the Nikiski Class Races, the traditional opener for cross-country running. Hooper said Nikiski will look to host the event if a week opens up due to another cancellation during the season.
Soldotna athletic director Kyle McFall said ASAA has condensed the football regular season from eight weeks to seven weeks. McFall said Week 2 was eliminated because that was easiest to cut.
McFall also said that Soldotna’s Week 1 opponent, Juneau-Douglas/Thunder Mountain, has already said it will not travel to play Soldotna because Juneau-Douglas/Thunder Mountain will only travel to areas at a low-risk level. That means SoHi is already down to six games.
For now, Brantley Jr. is focused on the first practice under the new restrictions. He thanked McFall for helping the football program work with ASAA to figure out what is permissible at practice.
“In the classroom in the spring, they told us to figure it out,” said Brantley Jr., who also is a teacher at SoHi. “People with over 20 years of classroom experience had to roll up their sleeves and figure it out.
“We’ll do the same thing with football. There will probably be some trial and error.”
Brantley Jr. said the biggest challenge will be that players are not supposed to touch each other. That makes it harder to teach tackling. The coach said the program has purchased tackling rings — which are rolling pads in a doughnut shape — in order to practice tackling a moving target.
“I think it’s a really delicate balance between the risk of getting COVID and the risk of putting kids in a violent sport and hoping they don’t get injured,” he said.
The coach said the first day’s practice will focus on teaching players, especially those who were not at summer workouts, new procedures for checking into practice and warming up while socially distanced. SoHi will then move on to testing physical skills and individual skill development.
Practice will be from 8 to 11 a.m. today.
“I love this sport and I’m excited we’re back to doing it, as long as the experts think we can do it safely,” Brantley Jr. said. “The second it’s unsafe, we’ll stop. Obviously, player safety is the most important thing.”
McFall said cross-country practice will be at the grass fields behind the pool from 9 to 10:30 a.m. He said athletes can find the paperwork they must fill out to practice football or cross-country on the SoHi website under “SoHi Athletics.” Athletes should also bring masks.
“We’ve kind of got the practice thing figured out,” McFall said. “The next big thing is not only hosting an event but also all the screening and social distancing for spectators. We’ve also got to figure out traveling to an event.”
McFall said cross-country, cheer and swimming head coaching positions are all open. He said it looks like Krista Arthur will be the cross-country coach, but finding other coaches is tough in this age of COVID-19.
The athletic director thanked SoHi coaches Brantley Jr., Arthur and volleyball’s Luke Baumer for conducting summer workouts and said this has reminded him of why he does what he does.
“In the long run, we’ve got to remember we’re doing this to provide opportunities for students to compete, get out and be active,” he said. “We’ve got to push through all the policies and procedures to give these kids the same opportunities other kids have had in the past.”
Nikiski athletic director Hooper said football practice starts at 9 a.m. and cross-country practice starts at 10:30 a.m.
Instructions for Nikiski football players are on the Nikiski football Facebook page. Nikiski cross-country athletes should log into planeths.com for paperwork and bring a mask.
Hooper also said they are taking it one step at a time in Nikiski.
“My take on this is to focus on what you can control,” Hooper said. “It’s really important to not let other factors throw you off. If you get wrapped up in the what ifs, you’ll drive yourself crazy.”
Hooper said football coach Paul Nelson has been running summer workouts, so these practices won’t be much of an adjustment. He also said Anna Widman is ready after spending the summer working for the Boys and Girls Club.
Kenai Central athletic director Jesse Settlemyer texted that football practice will be from 5 to 6 p.m. on the field from Wednesday through Friday. Cheerleading practice will be from 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Friday in the upper gym.
Settlemyer also said cross-country won’t start until Aug. 4, with a time to be determined.
The athletic director added athletes should bring a mask to practice and log onto planeths.com for instructions on completing a form for physicals and the COVID-19 waiver.