Local teams looking toward the future as football moves to spring

News File Photo Alpena High School receiver Charlie Williams (14) is tackled by a pair of Cadillac defenders during a 2019 game at Wildcat Stadium. Players around the state of Michigan will have to wait to return to the gridiron after the Michigan High School Athletic Association announced Friday that the fall football season will move to the spring of 2021.

Jason Somers and members of the Alcona High School football team were about an hour from starting practice on Friday, handing out equipment when the news broke: There would be no high school football this fall in Michigan.

To deter the spread of COVID-19, the Michigan High School Athletic Association announced around 4 p.m. Friday that the 2020 fall football season would move to the spring of 2021.

The news wasn’t entirely shocking to coaches around the state, as major college football conferences, including the Big Ten and Mid-American Conference, had already announced their intentions to play football in the spring.

But it still left a lingering sting for coaches and players in Northeast Michigan who were hopeful that, with low numbers of infected residents in the area and proper safety protocols, their teams could proceed as scheduled.

“As a coaching staff, it was in the backs of our (minds), but we kept steering the kids in the right direction,” Alpena High School football coach Eric Mitchell said. “I understand why it was moved, but it doesn’t make it any easier.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, public health officials reported 169 residents of Alpena, Presque Isle, Alcona, and Montmorency counties had been infected, 139 of whom had recovered and 16 of whom had died.

The MHSAA had announced on July 17 that the regular fall sports calendar would proceed as scheduled, albeit with precautions to deter the spread of COVID-19. It was stated then that football and other fall sports might move to the spring if it was deemed necessary.

Still, local football teams started practice last Monday in hopes of playing this fall, and local coaches said practice sessions were well-attended and well-received.

“These young men had been away from each other and activities for so long that they (the practices) were very enthusiastic,” Somers, who coaches Alcona’s team, said. “It was really fun to watch them come together in such a short amount of time.”

Coaches and players knew the season could get moved at any time, but it didn’t make it any easier when the decision finally came down on Friday.

“It was one of the worst days I’ve had as a coach, looking them in the eye and telling them,” Rogers City coach Jesse Fenstermaker said. “They did everything they were asked and followed all the guidelines. I was more optimistic (we would play), but I did explain to them that it could get shut down at any minute.”

Mitchell said he understands why the decision was made, but was disappointed for his players. As a rookie head coach last season, Mitchell led Alpena to a 4-5 record and had the Wildcats in contention for a playoff spot.

With nearly 90 players showing up last week for practices, Mitchell felt the Wildcats made some great progress and was sorry to see that come to a halt after a productive summer.

“I don’t want to point blame at anybody, but we feel like we’re a lot further ahead than we were last year,” Mitchell said. “All summer long, when we were doing conditioning, we were doing everything we could to give the kids a sense of normalcy.”

Mitchell met with his players on Monday and said nearly two dozen had already reached out to him to say they would spend the next several months getting bigger, faster, and stronger.

That sentiment was echoed by other local teams, even as disappointment hung heavy in the air.

“We talked, and, by the end of our meeting, a lot of players had come around and talked about taking advantage of this and getting more practice time,” Somers said. “That shows, really, maturity on their part.”

Details are forthcoming on what a spring football season in Michigan would look like, but it may not be so easy in northern Michigan. In fact, many coaches are curious to see how it’s pulled off.

MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said in a press release Friday that “there is just too much uncertainly and too many unknowns to play football this fall,” but there could be just as many unknowns — many that aren’t COVID-19 related — in a few short months.

Teams in Northeast Michigan routinely deal with cold temperatures and snow in March and early April. There are also concerns snow and ice will harden the ground on football fields and could leave players susceptible to serious injuries, especially in a sport with so much physical contact.

“I’m really concerned about concussions,” Somers said. “Our ground is still pretty solid by April, and playing on that ground is like playing on concrete.”

Time will tell when and if football teams in Michigan take to the gridiron next spring, but one thing is certain: Players want to get back on the field and have a season, regardless of what it looks like.

“I hope we have football, whether it be in the fall or spring,” Fenstermaker said. “I just want the kids to play football. One bit of feedback I got from most of them was, ‘I just want to get to playing football.'”

The MHSAA has announced that golf and tennis teams can begin competing today and that competition guidelines for volleyball, boys soccer and swimming and diving will also be decided today.


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