By Trey Williams
The TSSAA’s annual two-week dead period began this week after what felt like a three-week half-dead period.
Following the cancellation of spring sports due to the coronavirus pandemic, Unicoi County High School athletics resumed, more or less, on June 1.
Social distancing was still in place, preventing the opportunity for any contact work, and groups were limited to 10 or less the first two weeks. Football coach Drew Rice and basketball coach John Good were pleased with players’ attitudes and participation levels, though it still feels as if they’re operating in the Twilight Zone toward some uncertain destination.
Players’ and coaches’ temperatures were taken each day. Equipment was sterilized between each session of small groups.
“Our kids came in, and with the restrictions that we had, they came in and worked their butts off,” Good said. “I mean they really embraced it. They had a great attitude. All we could do was skill work, individual stuff. So they got a lot of shots. We couldn’t go two-on-two or one-on-one, much less five-on-five.”
As fate would have it, Rice, who is beginning his fifth season as head coach, had his largest number of players to date.
“We’ve got more guys than we’ve ever had, which is great,” Rice said. “But the one year where there’s a restriction on who you can have there and how many at a time, it probably added an extra group or two that in years passed we wouldn’t have had to do.”
Rice said 77 players began in June. He anticipates a roster of at least 70.
“I think our success we’ve had the last couple of years has hopefully contributed to that,” Rice said. “We’ve got 20 freshmen. We usually shoot for 15 a class. So to have 20 coming in is just tremendous. And it’s a great group. It’s just a tremendous group of football talent. I mean they’ve won 12 games the last two years, which is really saying something. I think these guys that were seniors last year – certainly not taking anything away from them, but I think their three years in middle school they ended up winning one game. And they had really good high school careers, of course.”
Rice said the large number of players – and their parents – failed to produce any collective palpable anxiety concerning the virus. Unicoi County coaches and staff even stressed not pressuring potential athletes into feeling as if they had to participate in June. Some programs in the state didn’t do anything in June.
“And not one of (the players) or their parents had a concern,” Rice said. “So that to me is pretty telling in itself about how people feel about it, at least around young people. If the parents are good to go and we’re good to go – it’s kind of a head-scratcher to say the least.”
Rice is frustrated, uncertain if a regular July awaits his team’s return from dead period. Will social distancing disappear immediately and 7-on-7 scrimmages be held as usual?
“It’s unbelievable that we’re into the dead period and we don’t have really any sort of answer or guidance or green light or whatever for what July 6 is gonna look like,” Rice said. “That’s just crazy to me. And that’s in no way a reflection of our local leadership. That’s not at all the case. That should come at a state-wide level. …
“I mean it’s the dead period, and not only have we not had spring practice, we’ve yet to have all of our guys together. The first two weeks of July normally, they’re only in helmets anyway. There’s not a lot of contact there other than rushing by somebody. If we’re unable to do that, honestly, I don’t know how we would start Aug. 21.”
The feasibility of altering season schedules at this point would seem to be shrinking.
“I think if you ask any football coach – not only in the state but in the country – their thoughts on starting to alter schedules and dates and things like that, it’ll be a complete nightmare,” Rice said. “And I haven’t heard a lot of that lately. … I think all football coaches are meticulous about their planning, and I think that’s what makes it so frustrating. We just don’t know. I think everyone wants to go. I think everyone is ready to go.”
The three weeks in June were strange days for Good. He would’ve liked to have taken his second squad of Blue Devils to camps at such places as Marshall, South Carolina, Middle Tennesse, East Tennessee State or UNC Asheville.
“It was the first year in 26 years that I haven’t went to team camp,” Good said. “My June was really off-kilter. I’m used to taking them two or three places for basketball purposes and bonding purposes. Even more than getting to play against other schools, getting to take the kids different places was really important. Some kids – that’s part of your quote-unquote vacation. Everybody doesn’t go to the beach. …
“It was just odd. Everything about it was odd.”
Good still isn’t 100 percent certain school will resume in even semi-regular fashion this year.
“I find it hard to believe we’re not gonna go back to school,” he said, “but I don’t know.”
Rice can only assume football will be played this fall.
“If we’re in school in the fall,” he said, “and I haven’t heard anything, but just talking to people I think that’s certainly the plan, if you’re gonna let a thousand people in a building, or 2,000 people in a building at these bigger schools, I don’t know how you can have that and say, ‘Well, you can’t play football, though.’ …
“But it’s June 21 and we don’t know what July 6 is gonna look like. … We were able to throw some (the last week), but we couldn’t put a defense out there for the social distancing parts. As it sits right now, we would basically have to divide our team up and have two separate practices.”