Football program resumes practice, prepares for abbreviated season
Thu, 09/10/2020 - 9:59am caleb
Vikings return to practice field after Michigan High School Athletic Association reinstates fall football season
Caleb Casey | Managing Editor
It was on, it was off, and now it’s on again. Grayling High School’s football program resumed practices on Tuesday, September 8, following the recent reinstatement of the fall season.
Initially, high school football teams in Michigan started their official practices for the 2020 fall campaign on Monday, August 10. On Friday, August 14, the Michigan High School Athletic Association announced that the 2020 football season would be moved to the spring of 2021 due to restrictions on activity and gatherings in place to combat the spread of COVID-19.
The MHSAA allowed football teams to conduct limited workouts and a set number of practice sessions during the fall, and the Vikings kept preparing.
“We continued to do weight training and speed development training after we heard of the postponement of our season. Most of the kids were eager to still train despite the bad news we received. We were planning on starting practices twice a week after Labor Day and figured that pattern would allow us the 16 practices by October 31. It was great to still be connected with the kids and still be around them,” said Eric Tunney, varsity football coach for Grayling High School.
Then, another change. The MHSAA – following the signing of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order 2020-176, which features a section in it offering specific rules for “Organized Sports” – announced that its Representative Council had voted to move football back into the fall for an abbreviated season.
After the change, teams were allowed to practice “in helmets and shoulder pads” on September 8 and 9 and then proceed to practices in full pads on September 10. The MHSAA has directed teams to resume their seasons with their Week 4 scheduled games on September 17-19, if they decide to opt in for the 2020 fall campaign.
Schools can still opt to play football in the spring, but the MHSAA playoffs will be conducted in the fall of 2020, according to the association.
Grayling High School is planning to play in the fall, and the players and coaches are excited to be back on the practice field.
“Being back on the field now is just exciting,” Coach Tunney said. “It’s the highlight of the day for us coaches and kids.”
“I love how the kids just jump in and pick up where we left off. There’s some changes and personnel differences but they don’t care; they just do what is asked of them and attack it. It’s a fun crew to coach so far,” Coach Tunney said.
“I’m thankful we’re in school and face to face but it certainly has its challenges and difficulties,” Coach Tunney said. “While some things are different on the field as well, it’s still a release from everything going on and a chance to just escape and play ball. These kids have been fun so far. They work hard, don’t complain, and do what is asked. They just want a chance to play some ball and I can’t wait for them to get that opportunity.”
Coach Tunney said he “was not expecting” the MHSAA to reverse its decision, but he is “ecstatic for the kids, particularly the seniors.”
“The fall 2020 football season has been reinstated by the Representative Council of the Michigan High School Athletic Association after Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order 2020-176 lifted restrictions that previously did not allow the sport to be played,” the MHSAA said in a press release on Thursday, September 3.
“We are thankful for the opportunity for kids to get back on the field in all fall sports, and we appreciate Governor Whitmer providing that opportunity with Executive Order 2020-176,” said Mark Uyl, MHSAA Executive Director. “We share the governor’s priorities of putting health and safety first, and the COVID-19 guidance and protocols designed by the MHSAA at her request have led to the safe starts in all sports across the state.”
Safety measures for football this year will include an expanded sideline area for players to allow for more physical distancing, enhanced sanitization efforts with regard to equipment, mask requirements, and eliminating pregame and postgame handshakes.
Safety protocols have been part of the Grayling High School football team’s 2020 offseason since March. The COVID-19 pandemic forced a variety of changes to normal offseason procedures; the team conducted “virtual” workouts for a while and transitioned to outdoor drills with physical distancing.
Coach Tunney said the Vikings were able to adapt to the situation and prepare for the start of official practices.
“It definitely was different and we had to get creative and think outside the box, but overall I think it went well,” Coach Tunney said. “Early on we shifted our focus away from traditional training and found new resources to work on speed and agility along with bodyweight training. We were able to still do some football activities occasionally and it was great to just be back with the kids and on the field. Once the weight room opened up in July we were limited with numbers and still are but a lot of kids were eager to get back in there. We weren’t able to do any 7-on-7s, which put us behind a bit, but nobody in the state was allowed to do them either. Overall I think we made the best of a tough situation and seeing how the kids were attacking all of the workouts made it fun to come to each day.”
Coach Tunney said the squad focused more on the fundamentals during the first week of official practices this year than in past seasons.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect the first week. We usually have a good idea of where the kids are and who knows what and at what position, but obviously this year was different. We came in with a few more question marks but I’m happy with what the kids accomplished during the first week. We’ve focused on fundamentals more, which has been beneficial. One of the best parts of coaching is watching the transformations happen and seeing the kids grow as football players and young men. It’s been no different during this first week despite all the differences,” Coach Tunney said before the shutdown.
Overall numbers for the varsity squad are down a little bit this year, but Coach Tunney said a new Michigan High School Athletic Association rule could help teams that are short-handed.
“Varsity numbers are a little down this year but I like the crew we do have,” Coach Tunney said. “We are split pretty evenly with juniors and seniors. The MHSAA inserted a new rule this year allowing players to play a total of five quarters per week so that may become a factor as we get into the season. An athlete could potentially play in both the JV game Thursday night and then some Friday for the varsity game. It’s something new but I’m sure we will look at some of the younger guys to contribute and/or get some varsity experience.”
“We have some kids who are football junkies and have some real talent and I’m excited to see what they do this year. I think overall as a team we have kids that are eager to strap up and get after it. There’s not a lot of us, but I like the crew that we have,” Coach Tunney said.
Coach Tunney said consistency, conditioning, and health will be keys for success this year if the season is played.
“We need to be consistent. The past two years we’ve had glimpses of looking really good, but have had breakdowns at times that cost us plays which led to losses. We also need to be in good shape. Without a lot of depth, we will have to have some guys go both ways, but I’m confident they can handle it and they actually prefer it that way. Staying healthy will be key to any success we might have this year as well,” Coach Tunney said.
Coach Tunney said he expects his players to consistently improve and be positive leaders in the school.
“On the field, I expect the kids to continue to get better each day and develop an unbreakable attitude. It doesn’t matter what comes their way, they will get through it and figure it out,” Coach Tunney said. “In the classroom and school in general, I expect them to be the example. There will be many changes in how school operates and we will need leadership from the student body if we are to stay with face to face learning. I think our group of kids has the capability to be that positive example.”
The scheduled season opener for Grayling High School’s varsity football team is now a road game at Kalkaska High School on Friday, September 18, at 7 p.m.
The first league match for the Vikings in the Northern Michigan Football Conference Legends Division is a home game scheduled for Friday, September 25, at 7 p.m. vs. Traverse City St. Francis.
Coach Tunney said he expects tough challenges in the Northern Michigan Football Conference this year. (The Legends Division includes Benzie Central, Cheboygan, Grayling, Kingsley, Ogemaw Heights, Sault Ste. Marie, and Traverse City St. Francis, according to the MHSAA.)
“Kingsley and St. Francis will be tough again. They’re both solid programs and always have some premier athletes. If we can be consistent and stay healthy we have the capability to do some great things,” Coach Tunney said.