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June 2020


in Reporting

As COVID-19 positives surge, summer workouts suspend across the Heart of Texas

When the University Interscholastic League (UIL) announced on May 22 that Texas high schools could resume strength and conditioning programs starting June 8, athletes, coaches and fans alike let out a collective sigh of relief believing it would be the first step in the return to normal.

Not so fast.

Since letting schools participate in voluntary strength and conditioning workouts, positive cases of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 disease have risen again across Texas and numerous Heart of Texas high schools have reported positives among their student-athletes. Consequently, some have decided to pause hosting workouts due to those positive cases, while others closed their doors due to concerns about COVID-19.

Although not all have student-athletes testing positive, schools in the Heart of Texas region suspending workouts include Axtell, Belton, Bosqueville, China Spring, Clifton, Waco Connally, Crawford, Gatesville, Hillsboro, La Vega, Mart, Meridian, Midway, Robinson, Waco and West with probably more to come.

Clifton ISD decided to temporarily close its facilities to students after learning a district employee had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. CISD Superintendent Andy Ball confirmed in a statement that the person who tested positive had contact with students and staff at the athletic department’s speed and power camp on June 17-18 and June 22-25.

“It has been brought to my attention that a district employee that has worked strength and conditioning camp has tested positive for COVID-19,” Ball said in a statement released Sunday on the school district website. “The employee has not returned to district property since testing positive.

“CISD will be taking steps to sanitize any school facilities where the individual recently accessed. We will continue to monitor this situation and will provide additional information as needed.”

Ball also pointed out that in accordance with state and national guidance, any person who attended the strength and conditioning camp during the listed dates should monitor their health for signs of symptoms, follow CDC guidelines for people who had close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID19, and contact their primary care physician if they develop symptoms.

In light of the current trend, Meridian ISD and athletic director Wade Morton had already decided to play it safe last Thursday, closing down strength and conditioning workouts for the next two weeks, planning to start back up with Jacket Camp July 13.

“We were going to be off the week of July 6 and planned to work out three days this week,” Morton said. “But I went ahead and called off the next three days and gave them two weeks off.”

In the meantime, while Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced a temporary pause of additional reopening phases last Thursday in hopes of avoiding a second shutdown.

“The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses,” Gov. Abbott said. “This temporary pause will help our state corral the spread until we can safely enter the next phase of opening our state for business.”

Following the governor’s lead,  the UIL continued to dodge handing down a definitive ruling last week as well.

“As of now, there are no immediate updates regarding Summer Strength and Conditioning Instruction,” the UIL said in an official statement last week. “Per the UIL guidelines, participation in Summer Strength and Conditioning is optional and schools should take their local context into account when deciding whether to offer summer strength and conditioning on campus. Schools are encouraged to be vigilant and take every precaution to mitigate risk and keep their communities safe and healthy.”

“UIL continues to monitor CDC and other federal guidance related to COVID-19 to determine any potential modifications to UIL summer guidelines,” the UIL said in its official statement last week. “Any plans regarding UIL activities and events for the 2020-21 school year will be dependent upon guidance from local and state authorities and will be released by UIL when more information is available.”

But on Wednesday, July 1, all of that changed as the UIL issued a statement recommending schools to consider shutting down workouts for the next two weeks.

“In anticipation of the July 4 holiday and the potential for increased social interactions that could spread COVID-19, UIL is cecommending schools to consider closing summer workouts, rehearsals, practices and instruction between July 3-12, resuming Monday, July 13,” the UIL statement released Wednbesday afternoon said.

“For schools in areas experiencing community spread of COVID-19, this temporary suspension will reduce risk of exposure and provide an opportunity to review risk of exposure and provide an opportunity to review current plans and re-evaluate local context in order to make informed decisions moving forward.

“UIL will continue to work with state officials and monitor CDC and other federal guidance to determine any potential modifications to UIL summer guidelines.”

Coming out of a three-month long layoff, coaches were thrilled to reunite with their athletes June 8 for voluntary summer workouts, including strength and conditioning along with some sports-specific drills.

“We can’t wait to get back out there with the kids,” Clifton Cub athletic director and football head coach Chuck Caniford said before opening Speed & Power Camp 2020. “Working with kids is why we do what we do, and the last couple of months has been miserable not being able to work with them on a daily basis. The best part of my day is when the kids show up so I know I speak for all of our staff that we are ready to go on Monday.”

The UIL instituted a number of protocols for the workouts that separated them from a normal summer gathering. Schools had to have at least one staff member present for every 20 students in attendance. Water couldn’t be shared, and athletes needed to bring their own water bottles with them. Programs were required to have hand-washing or sanitizing stations readily available.

“Obviously, the protocols in place will change some of what we do at our workouts, but I think it may actually be a blessing because it’s going to force us to tap the brakes a little bit on how much we try to do every day,” Caniford said. “One of the most noticeable things that will be different is that we will be outside the entire time, with the exception of our volleyball and basketball skill sessions. 

“There are so many restrictions on what you can do in the weight room that it makes more sense for us to work outside, and I think we have a really good plan that will get them ready for the fall seasons. We are fortunate in that we have some equipment in our facility that is very conducive to use outside. That will enable us to get their movement back quickly. 

“When you are coming off of an extended layoff like this, you have to be very careful with your programming in order to minimize the risk of injury and progressively develop their strength and conditioning.” 

But after Caniford and other coaches around the Heart of Texas region put considerable thought and preparation into making the adjustments, it didn’t take long before the UIL started loosening some of its COVID-19 restrictions on summer high school workouts. Beginning June 22, the UIL allowed for 50 percent capacity on all indoor activities, including weightlifting sessions, up from the initial 25 percent restriction.

Additionally, the UIL dropped the 20-to-1 student-to-coach ratio. The limit on groups of students working together outdoors also increased from 15 to 25 June 22 with each group required to “maintain appropriate distance” from other groups. The UIL even downgraded equipment disinfection from a requirement to a strong suggestion.

And then, it all started going wrong.

In response to pushing the pause button, the Office of the Governor and University of Texas Head Football Coach Tom Herman released a new public service announcement (PSA) titled, “The Power of Teamwork” on Monday. In the PSA, Herman urges Texans to work together as a team to stop COVID-19.

“As Texans, we understand the power of teamwork whether it’s on or off the field,” Herman says on the PSA. “And right now, we need a team effort to stop COVID-19. We all have a responsibility to protect our health and the health of our loved ones. So make sure you do your part to slow the spread of COVID-19. Wash your hands, practice social distancing, of course wear a mask, and if you can, stay home. Together, we will beat COVID-19.”


(Originally published June 29, this post was updated at 7 p.m. July 1)

©2020 Southern Cross Creative, LLP. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


in Reporting

FCA Victory Bowl all-star games deliver return of high school sports

Although the atmosphere surrounding the 12th Annual Fellowship of Christian Athletes Victory Bowl festivities and events did not feel quite the same, the spirit of the various all-star games took on a meaning never present before.

After a three-month absence of Texas high school sports due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, graduated seniors from over 100 high schools in 12 counties from the Heart of Texas area returned to the court and fields for the love of the games.

Once the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) suspended all UIL-sanctioned contests, effective March 16 through March 29. Then when Gov. Greg Abbott proclaimed a public health disaster in Texas for the first time in more than 100 years March 19, the UIL extended its suspension of all UIL-sanctioned activities before cancelling all remaining Spring competitions April 17 due to the pandemic.

This year, the Victory Bowl brought together 92 football players, 24 volleyball players, 20 cheerleaders, 36 baseball players, 30 softball players, 75 band members and 30 area head coaches. And most of them, including 63 athletes in The Sports Buzz coverage area, were thrilled to come out of isolation and return to action.

Whether or not the event would take place at all remained in doubt until the 11th hour. In the past, the FCA Victory Bowl included a week of practices for each team along with service projects in the community and fellowship activities. Despite being forced to alter its plans, the FCA decided to go on with the games.

“At the end of the day, we still gathered allowing these kids a chance to do what they love to do, which is participate in their sport,” Heart of Texas FCA director Ben Johnson said. “In talking about it, we just felt like this was the best way to go.”

With Abbott’s guidelines prohibiting any youth sports games until June 15, no fans were allowed in the venues. But the games were video streamed on the website, beginning with the FCA Victory Bowl softball game Thursday afternoon, June 4 at Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Dee Dillon Field in Belton, followed by the baseball game Friday afternoon at Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Red Murff Field in Belton. The FCA Victory Bowl week continued with the volleyball match Saturday afternoon at the Vanguard College Prep gymnasium.

Although the annual Blue-Red football game typically serves as the showcase event culminating FCA Victory Bowl week, the game was cancelled due health risks related to the number of people involved in the contest. But the FCA provided a social media rollout of a taped simulated Victory Bowl football game Saturday evening on the website instead.

The unique event featured the Victory Bowl blue and red players as avatars in a computer simulation of the popular “Madden 2020” video game with the blue roster fed into the game on the Dallas Cowboys team and the red players placed on the Houston Texans. The simulated game action was taped along with broadcast commentary from the FCA’s Ben Johnson and former Waco High coach Johnny Tusa.

With the softball all-star game opening the live action, the Blue and Red high school senior athletes circles around the infield demonstrating social distancing as they gathered get for some fun, fellowship and friendly competition.

As pitchers Makenzie Dunbar of Crawford and Kenzie Seely of Whitney combined to blank the Blue squad through six innings, the Red team erupted for a four-run third inning on their way to a 5-2 victory.

Clifton’s Mason Brandenberger struck out four in the first inning in the FCA Victory Bowl baseball all-star game at Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Red Murff Field in Belton.

In Friday’s baseball team, Clifton’s Mason Brandenberger delivered an all-star performance as the Red team rallied for an 8-4 win over the Blue squad. Coming out of the shutdown, Brandenberger wanted to make the most of the opportunity before moving on to play baseball at Temple College.

“I never realized how much I missed baseball until I stepped on the field for the first time in three months,” Brandenberger said. “It was something that made me realize how special it was to be able to play the game of baseball one last time as a high schooler.

“I’ve been practicing just about every day preparing for the game, and also preparing for baseball at Temple College next year. Even with practicing, it still was different actually playing a live game and seeing live pitching for the first time in awhile. It definitely made the game a pitcher-friendly game.”

With that said, Brandenberger capitalized on the advantage. Starting on the mound for the Red team, the lefthander worked his way out of first inning trouble with a rare four-strikeout inning.

But the Clifton Cub all-starter wasn’t done yet. With the Red team trailing 4-3 after two innings, Brandenberger’s triple into the gap in right center drove in two runs for the game-winning hit.

“Going into the game, I knew it was going to be tough to be able to see the ball well after not getting to see live pitching for so long,” Brandenberger said. “So when I was able to hit that triple and see the ball as well as I did, it kinda became a blur. Our team never looked back after that.”

Meridian’s Matt Rosas makes the tag at second base in the FCA Victory Bowl baseball all-star game at Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Red Murff Field in Belton.

With the Red team holding a three-run lead, Moody’s Cody Stone, Grandview’s Colby Diduch, Avalon’s Dillon Martin and Abbott’s Matthew Pevehouse combined to shut out the Blues through the final five frames.

“When the pandemic cut our senior year short, all I had to look forward to was the FCA game,” Brandenberger said. “It was the last time you get to play as a high school athlete. Four years of playing baseball for Clifton high school all came down to the FCA bowl game.

“While playing in the game, I was just soaking it all in because I knew I would never be able to do that again as a high schooler. It was such a great opportunity to play in the FCA bowl game for one last game, and it is definitely something I will never forget.”

With the Red teams leading the Victory Bowl week with a 2-0 record, the remaining two games became wildly competitive and exciting, while being dramatically different.

Playing at Vanguard College Preparatory School in Waco, the Red volleyball squad survived an inspired comeback by the Blue team to capture a 26-24, 25-21, 24-26, 18-25, 15-12 victory in the first five-set match in the seven-year history of the Victory Bowl volleyball all-star game Saturday afternoon.

Standouts included Crawford’s Anne Williams, who led the Lady Pirates to back-to-back state championships, with a double-double, delivering 13 kills and providing 10 digs for the Red team, while Blum’s Emma Rodriguez with a team-high 14 digs and Whitney’s Delaney Woodall with a double-double of 12 digs and 13 assists led the Blue squad.

The 12th Annual Victory Bowl football all-star game was played as a computer simulation of the popular “Madden 2020” video game with broadcast commentary from the FCA’s Ben Johnson and former Waco High coach Johnny Tusa.

Then it all came down to the 12th annual Victory Bowl football game Saturday night, even if it had to be played virtually. Opening with a National Anthem performance from Crawford student Lanie Elmore, the Red team completed the clean sweep by defeating the Blue, 23-20, in the simulated game. Crawford’s Tate Abel hauled in a 94-yard scoring pass in the fourth quarter for the game-winner.

Despite major overhauls since the COVID-19 outbreak brought the sports world to a screeching halt in March, the Victory Bowl events, organized by and benefit the Heart of Texas Fellowship of Christian Athletes, once again proved to be a success, especially for the participating players. To watch the softball, baseball, volleyball and football games, visit

Student-athletes representing the Heart of Texas were:

Blue Team football players included Caleb Ince of Cranfills Gap, Zade Kendall of Meridian, Darius Williams of Mount Calm, Dalton Martin and Javieon Simmons of Valley Mills, and Vance Trotter of Walnut Springs, facing Red Team players Dakota Price of Aquilla, Justin Ketcher of Axtell, Nathan Quattlebaum of Bruceville-Eddy, Dakota Mynarcik of Bynum, Coley Davis of Clifton, Giovanni Mendez of Covington, Jed Whitney of Crawford, Cade Kneuper of Hamilton, Ryan Irvin of Hico, Logan Morris of Hubbard, JaVonn Reed of Itasca, Tonny Sanchez-Yanez, Kyler Martin and Chris Bledsoe of Mart, Michael Ramos of McGregor, Isael Uribe of Oglesby, Donavon Blakes of Riesel, Juan Saucedo, Devin Wilson and Shawntay Owens of Whitney.

Playing in the volleyball game, Blue Team representatives included Emma Rodriguez of Blum, Alexis Garner of Bosqueville, and Taylor Fouts of Valley Mills playing against Red Team members Rachel Kallus of Abbott, Ana Maddox, Anne Williams and Peyton Elmore of Crawford, and Delaney Woodell of Whitney.

Taking the baseball diamond were Blue Team players Will McClellan of Bosqueville, Matt Rosas of Meridian and Cory McNai of Valley Mills taking on Red Team members Matthew Pevehouse of Abbott, Dylan Vardeman of Blum, Mason Brandenberger of Clifton, Colby Diduch of Grandview, Chance Hasse of Hubbard, Jhobe Smith of McGregor, Cody Stone of Moody, Lane Kemp of Riesel, and Jack Hamilton of West.

Ladies playing softball were Blue Team player Jessica Johnson of Valley Mills, along with Red squad members Kenna Mynar of Abbott, Audrey Anderson of Clifton, Makey Dunbar of Crawford, Madison Knox of McGregor, Ellena Munoz of Moody, Jacie Ehlers of Riesel, Audry Holloman and Jordyne Reese of West, and Kenzie Seely of Whitney.

The cheer squad representatives included Blue Cheer members Vianey Lujan of Cranfills Gap and Madisyn Hicks of Meridian, as well as Red Cheer members Sutton Finney of Clifton, Baylee Casillas of Covington, Kelsey Compton of Crawford, Jaydyn Gillham of Hubbard, Abby Killian and Lainey Hale of Hamilton.

Heart of Texas coaches participating in the 2020 Victory Bowl games were Blue Team football coach Sam Moody of Valley Mills, and Red Team coaches Delbert Kelm of Crawford, Jarrett Shipp of Gholson, Charles Steele of Covington, and Josh Conner of Bynum; Blue Team volleyball coach Steve Hogan of Valley Mills and Red Team coach Hadley Joiner of Bruceville-Eddy; Red Team baseball coaches Kyle Crawford of Abbott, Randy Smith of Crawford, and Cody Brown of Axtell; Red Team softball coach Jessie Thompson of Hamilton; Blue Team cheer coach Patricia Leach of Hamilton and Red Team cheer coaches Tammy Bush of Riesel and Patricia Leach of Hamilton.

The Victory Bowl began in 2009 as an FCA fundraiser and outreach event. It included a football game for the first five years before expanding to include volleyball in 2014 and baseball and softball in 2016. Johnson estimated that more than 3,000 students from around Central Texas have participated in the Victory Bowl over its 11-year existence, including the athletes, cheerleaders and band members.

The 2019 FCA Victory Bowl players and coaches together for a photo opportunity.


©2020 Southern Cross Creative, LLP. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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