Indiana basks in normlacy of Friday night football
MISHAWAKA, Ind. -- Yes, there were Friday Night Lights on Friday night.
Unlike in Illinois, high school football is a go in the Hoosier state this fall. And so, knowing that many of you are missing high school football as much as we are, the Daily Herald sent me across the border to check out a game, and to share with you some of the sights and sounds around the stadium as well as my observations as to how Indiana, which actually has a higher COVID-19 positivity rate (8.8 percent) than Illinois (4.1 percent) is pulling this off.
I picked Penn High School in Mishawaka, which is right next door to South Bend, home of the University of Notre Dame. My parents live nearby so I had a place to stay. Plus, Penn is consistently one of the top football programs in Indiana.
The Kingsmen have won five state titles since 1983 and have been state runners-up seven times, most recently in 2017. They've also won 37 Northern Indiana Conference titles in the last 43 years.
But even though Penn has started 1-2 in 2020, including Friday's 52-7 loss to visiting Indianapolis Cathedral, the No. 1 team in the state in Class 5A, this might be one of the program's most cherished seasons ever.
At least the Kingsmen have a season in the first place.
"We're very happy, we know we're blessed," said Penn quarterback Ron Powlus, a senior who is the son of former Notre Dame star quarterback Ron Powlus. "Our coaches tell us every day that there are other people who don't even get to play.
"It makes me very happy to play football. That's what I feel like every day, going out on the field with my friends, and that's how they feel as well. We're all just very grateful to be able to play football."
But it wasn't just the football players who were basking in the normalcy of the Friday night lights.
Members of the Penn band were at the game, playing the national anthem and "God Bless America" and the school song before the game, and a medley of songs during halftime.
There was the girls drill team, flipping their rifles high into the air. Girls with flags were twirling them in unison as they marched with the band. And the cheerleaders waved their sparkling gold pom pons in the air. (Penn's colors are black and gold.)
It was like your usual production of a football game with all the pomp and circumstance ... just with masks, of course.
"I'm absolutely delighted that we have an opportunity to have our students participate in extracurricular activities on this campus," Penn-Harris-Madison Superintendent Dr. Jerry Thacker said. "The protocols are being followed, wearing masks, everything. The students have been great, the parents have been great. They just appreciate so much being out here."
Over the summer, like in Illinois, there was uncertainty as to whether a football season would be possible in Indiana.
Sara Powlus, Ron's mother, says that she is thankful for not only every game, but every practice because she sees how beneficial it has been to her son, who is not only getting a chance to fight for a college scholarship but is also getting valuable social time with his friends.
"We're here in game three now and we never even thought we'd get game one in, so we couldn't be happier," Sara Powlus said. "Just to get those boys together and play and practice, it's been great.
"They get to be a part of something that is bigger than themselves, they get to be a part of a team, instead of sitting in their bedrooms by themselves. You make friendships that can last a lifetime. It's not only the fitness, it's the mental health that sports give kids. It's so great they've been able to get back out there. It feels pretty normal."
And it looked pretty normal, other than the masks, and a more modest-sized crowd than usual.
Mostly parents filled the stands as Penn restricted the crowd size.
Usually, the Kingsmen draw near capacity crowds to TCU Freed Field, which seats 8,000. But the Indiana Department of health limits crowds to 25 percent capacity, which is 2,000 for Penn.
For this game, Penn capped the crowd at 1,250 and required all tickets to be purchased prior to the game. A total of 300 tickets were given to fans from Indianapolis Cathedral, many of whom tailgated in the parking lot prior to the game.
Most fans were not sitting 6 feet apart, but they were wearing face masks, which were required for entrance.
Hand sanitizer stations were scattered around the stadium.
There was not a handshake line between players after the game, and Penn's players lined up on one side of the field as part of their new postgame routine and took off their jerseys, helmets and shoulder pads. Those were all immediately sanitized right there on the field by staff.
Since the beginning of the preseason, the Kingsmen have had two COVID-19 cases on the team. That forced a self-imposed 48-hour "pause" for the entire team. The two players who tested positive went through contact tracing and quarantine before being able to rejoin the team.
"A lot of work went in during the off-season in this state to think about how we could get a re-entry in place knowing that all the eyes around were going to be on us," Penn head coach Cory Yeoman said. "Our goal is to make sure every player and coach and staff member of this team stays healthy and safe. We disinfect everything. Everyone is always washing their hands. We keep the kids in small groups. So many things and they all make a difference."
And no one seems to mind. Yeoman says that his players are all in with protocol because they can play.
"When we had a couple kids test positive, we had to hit that pause for 48 hours and that was very crushing to our guys," Yeoman said. "They saw how fragile and how vulnerable this is and how easily something they love can be taken away from them and I think that made them buy in (to the safety measures) even more."