CLASSIFYING THE COVID CHALLENGE

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Amid UIL coronavirus commotion, Heart of Texas high school athletes return to action for football & volleyball practice

Despite the confusion, frustration and fear associated with the circumstances, at least a portion of the high school football and volleyball programs across the Heart of Texas started practicing Monday in preparation for the 2020 fall sports season while still in the midst of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are very excited about having the opportunity to get back to work with our kids,” Class 3A’s Clifton Cub football head coach Chuck Caniford said. “I truly believe that our kids need some return to normalcy. Obviously, there will be some challenges as we work through this, but it’s exciting for all of us to be able to have the opportunity to play.”

At first glance, when the University Interscholastic League announced an amended 2020-21 athletic calendar to accommodate for the COVID-19 outbreak across the state July 21, it seemed to make sense.

Schools in the 1A through 4A classifications continued forward as planned by beginning football and volleyball practice Aug. 3. Volleyball can play its first matches Aug. 10, while football will start on time Aug. 27 with the season unfolding as scheduled, culminating with football state championships in mid-December.

But Class 6A and 5A schools, primarily located in highly-populated urban areas, were issued a delay of about a month with practice beginning Sept. 7, games starting Sept. 24, and the season pushed back so that the state title games would be played in January.

Although postponing densely populated COVID-19 hot spots while allowing more isolated rural counties to play ball as scheduled appeared to be a practical solution on the surface, it quickly became apparent that the dividing lines were not so clean cut.

With McLennan County serving as home for schools in all six classifications, the district lines spread into all six bordering counties — Bell, Bosque, Coryell, Falls, Hill and Limestone. As one of the designated COVID hot spots in Texas, McLennan County health officials recommended that schools delay opening regardless of classification.

As a result, numerous smaller classification schools across the Heart of Texas found their athletic schedules dramatically impacted, while some districts actually found teams were split on whether they could start or not, leaving the entire league in doubt.

“I have no choice but to accept the UIL’s decision,” Class 1A’s Walnut Springs football head coach Lonnie Flippen said. “I understand their decision was based on our being a rural area school district, but I question their decision in some ways. We have schools in and near some urban areas on our schedule, and I am concerned that their decision may have an adverse effect in some cases.”

Shortly after the UIL made its announcement, Class 2A Valley Mills found itself directly in the crossfire of the COVID debate. While most of the town lies in Bosque County, the Valley Mills ISD administrative offices and high school resides just across the county line in McLennan County. Likewise, District 7-2A, Division I holds Bosqueville, Crawford and Valley Mills facing the recommended delay, while Hamilton, Itasca, Rio Vista and Tolar are clear to begin.

“It was a roller coaster of emotions for our staff and athletes,” Valley Mills football head coach Sam Moody said. “In the morning, we find out that UIL has approved us to begin the season on time. In the afternoon, we are informed that McLennan County is shutting down school and all extracurricular until after September 7th. So, we were still trying to figure out what the plan would be for the season.”

But once Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton ruled that what began as an “order” to shut down schools in McLennan County could only legally be termed a “recommendation,” Valley Mills ISD decided to move forward with the original schedule.

“We started up Monday,” Moody said. “We’re just doing strength and conditioning this week though, and a little football just to get our legs under us again.”

On the other hand, Clifton found itself looking to replace three of their four non-district opponents. And Caniford left nothing to chance, wasting little time in making sure the Cubs would play a full 10-game schedule.

Originally scheduled to open the season hosting Bosqueville Aug. 28 before facing West, Maypearl and McGregor in non-district games, Clifton will now open the season on the road against Sanger at Aledo’s Bearcat Stadium, play the home opener against Academy Sept. 4, then visit Maypearl and host Tenaha before opening District 13-3A, DII competition at home against Riesel Sept. 25.

“It’s been a long tough couple of months,” Caniford said. “But we have to focus on the things that we can control, and right now, that’s our preparation. We still have a lot of work to do to make sure that we do everything we can to mitigate the risks for our kids, our staff and our community. But I’ve been really proud of how our team has worked through all the protocols to this point.

“August 3rd couldn’t get here fast enough. We are always excited for the start of practice, but this year, it’s going to have a little added juice to it”

Meridian football’s second-year head coach Wade Morton found the Yellowjackets in a similar situation, replacing their Week 4 home game against Moody with a trip to Hubbard before substituting Week 5’s trip to Axtell with a home clash against Italy.

“We’re excited to get to start Aug. 3rd, and it’s unfortunate that everyone else in the state can’t do the same,” Morton said. “We’ve been operating the entire time as if nothing would change, which is important due to so many other things needing to be.”

Despite the numerous changes leading into the 2020 Texas high school football season, Bosque County six-man teams remain excited about getting to play in an all-Bosque County league of their own, District 12-1A, DII, for the first time ever. Although the county rivals – Cranfills Gap, Iredell, Kopperl, Morgan and Walnut Springs – competed in the same district in 2002, the previous league also included outsiders Jonesboro and Oglesby.

“The kids and coaches were excited to hear the news that we will be starting on time,” said Cranfills Gap football head coach Adam Carroll as the Lions will be coming off their first district championship since 1982. “We’ve had pretty good numbers for summer workouts, and they had voiced how upset they would be with delayed or a cancelled football season.

“Hopefully, things will go smoothly. And we will be as precautionary as we can, while allowing the kids to get back to play.”

After qualifying for the playoffs in 2019, the Morgan Eagles lost to Cranfills Gap in a bi-district playoff matchup. So, Morgan looks forward to battling the Lions for the district crown this season.

“Our students are excited to get back to working out and putting our efforts towards another successful year,” Morgan football head coach Edward Aviles. “I am grateful that UIL has allowed us to get back into beginning sports. It has been great to be around the kids and see the growth some of them have had since March.”

The last time all five Bosque County six-man schools played in the same district, Walnut Springs head coach Tim Trotter was the only one around to see it. But as the county’s longest tenured head coach dating back to 1994, Trotter decided to retire during the summer, bringing Flippen back to the sideline while also serving as the Walnut Springs High School principal.

“I’m proud that we are returning to some form of normalcy in these crazy and unprecedented times,” Flippen said. “ And we will make every attempt to protect our student athletes here at Walnut Springs and  provide them with the opportunity to participate in football. We will certainly be flexible, because I feel like changes may be made shortly after all of this begins. I hope that I’m wrong, but only time will tell.”

Photos by DAVID HARDING

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