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Rice, Blue Devil football team face uncertain future

Drew Rice (Erwin Record File Photo)

By Trey Williams

Spring football looks like a lost cause due to the coronavirus pandemic, and high school coaches such as Unicoi County’s Drew Rice wonder what they’ll have to fall back on when and if the 2020 season starts.

With school out until at least May, and almost certainly for the remainder of the semester, and players isolated due to social distancing, football’s offseason is indeed off.

“It’s just a mess,” Rice said. “And there’s not really a good answer. Nobody really knows what to expect or how long it’s going to last, and I think the longer it goes the more concerning it becomes for fall sports. I never dreamed we’d be doing what we’re doing now, so it’s kind of like, ‘Who knows?’

“There’s just so much uncertainty and there’s zero precedent. It’s harder for everybody. I saw a thing one day – I don’t know if it was April 1 or what day – and it was the first day that no baseball had been played anywhere that day since 1882 or something crazy like that.”

Rice sends his players group messages with workouts. The vast majority of his players do not own weightlifting equipment.

“Honestly, the part that’s worse than no spring practice to me is just not being able to have them in the weight room right now,” Rice said.

The Blue Devils normally work out from January through November.

“I would concede spring practice all along if it meant we could get them in the weight room,” Rice said. “That’s really the thing that’s concerning to me, because so much of the weight room now – and this is a great thing – is just as much injury prevention as it is strength building. I haven’t polled our kids, but we’ve been functioning under the assumption that none of them have any equipment at home. I’m sure a few do, but I’m sure none of them have available to them what they would in our facility. So we’ve just been trying to be real creative.

“We’ve been sending out a workout every day for them to do at home. There’s only so much you can do without equipment, but it’s the same boat every high school in the country is in. It’s a strange deal, for sure.”

Many Devils have worked diligently in the weight room for three years. It’s difficult to project the potential ramifications should lifting not resume until June or July.

“To go just such an extended period of time without being able to train like we like to is just extremely tough,” Rice said.

And, of course, any push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and running is being done now on the honor system.

“There’s a level of accountability there,” said Rice, whose Blue Devils went 6-5 overall and 4-1 in the region last season. “Now, obviously, we don’t know if they’re doing it or not. Our hope is they are. I know some of them are. We’ve all just tried to learn on the fly with it. … We try to keep it fun and keep their spirits high.”

The TSSAA could scrap the two-week dead period in late June-early July. The season could be delayed and/or shortened.

“Another thing that’s so strange about this: no matter how high up the food chain you go nobody really has an answer, because it’s such a wait-and-see kind of deal,” Rice said. “They haven’t ruled out the possibility of us going back to school in May, which I know Georgia’s not, Virginia’s not. I feel like we’ll probably be next in that. …

“So that’d rule out spring. So now what does the summer look like? Does June become a normal June or is that gonna be off limits, too?”

Unicoi returns quarterback Brock Thompson, who will generate college interest in football and basketball. Of course, the recruiting season is currently being hampered.

“With all this going on it’s kind of slowed everything,” Rice said. “But I definitely think he’s gonna have an opportunity to play either football or basketball if that’s something he wants to do, even if it’s at a smaller level.

“He’s been a good one. We’ve been anticipating him being a senior for a long time, and now that it’s here it’s sort of surreal.”

Surreal is a word heard often these days, yet doesn’t seem to do these strange days justice. And an increase of down time has only helped spur speculation.

“I feel like everybody’s just throwing out possibilities and ideas, and who knows what’s got traction and what doesn’t,” Rice said. “But I even saw something where if they do have to condense the season – would we just play region games? I don’t want that to be the case, but if it was that or nothing, of course we’re gonna take that.

“But that’s so far away that I don’t even think you can speculate about that. … Hopefully, by then we’ve got a handle on this thing.”