It's been a while, but football is finally set to return
Are you ready for more daylight ... buds on the trees and that fresh spring air?
Are you ready for March Madness and the green of St. Patty's Day?
Oh yeah, and are you ready for some football?
After a year in which COVID-19 wrecked havoc on everything in life, including sports seasons as we know them, 2021 will be the debut of spring high school football.
With the 2020 football season last fall moved to spring due to COVID-19 concerns, the IHSA announced in January that it would stage a 6-week season for football. That season is here, with official practices due to start on Wednesday and games, with all players in masks, to start on March 18. The season, with the traditional one-game-per-week format, will end on April 24.
Sure, it's still cold. And there is still snow on the ground in some parts of the suburbs. And that cold and snow has been known to linger deep into the spring.
But football is on.
"It feels like Christmas," said a giddy Joe Pardun, Hersey's football coach. "The kids are so excited. They're starting to laugh again. In fact, we had some of our freshmen in a room the other day and they were getting a little squirrelly and I had to go in there and tell them to settle down, and you know what? I kind of liked it. It was like, 'Ok, we're back.'
"The kids are so happy to have football back and to be starting up that they're starting to get back to themselves again. They are beaming. I can see it."
Getting the fields ready
There are still mounds and mounds of snow on some fields. School groundskeepers have been working tirelessly to remove the snow with special plows and blowers as to not damage the turf.
"About half of our (turf) field is snow-free at this point," Naperville Central coach Mike Stine said. "What they do is they get off pretty much all the snow except about an inch or two and then they blow that off. Our school district just put in new turf for us and Naperville North so they are being really cautious not to damage it."
Artificial turfs around the suburbs will be extra busy once they are totally snow free. Not only will all levels of football need to use them, so will all levels of boys soccer.
Then, as time moves forward, spring sports such as track and lacrosse, field hockey and girls soccer may need access to that space for their preseason practices. It will be a revolving door on the football field.
"Practices will be at all different times," Antioch coach Brian Glashagel said. "There's going to be no set schedule. Sometimes we will have before-school practices. Sometimes we'll go late.
"At our place (district sister school) Lakes will also be using our field because they have a grass field. So we have to manage times with them along with all of our other sports like soccer and field hockey. You might see our stadium lights on every night until 10 p.m."
Challenges lie ahead
After the long darkness of 2020, coaches say it will be a welcome site to see the lights of high school sports, and their stadiums, shining brightly again.
However, it won't come without some challenges.
Some of the concerns for football coaches include waiting on late-arriving athletes and dealing with the cold, both of which they are not used to in a typical fall.
Football players who also play basketball won't be done with basketball until March 13. So as basketball coaches have had to adjust when their football teams make extended playoff runs and basketball players who play football miss some of preseason basketball, football coaches are now in that same boat.
"We have some basketball players and usually, basketball is waiting on us, now it's the other way around and all of us coaches are just working with each other," Stine said. "Usually, in our conference, we don't have kids practicing for one sport when they are still involved in season with another, but I think our athletic directors are going to put in a one-year waiver for that. So when they are able to, basketball players can come to football practice while basketball is still going on so that they can get their practice days in for football.
"We're all just working with each other to make it as safe and as painless as possible for the kids to do all the sports they want."
The piercing cold of a damp spring can certainly be painful. In fact, it could be colder in March than during the football playoffs in late November.
Football season usually isn't hampered by such extreme temperatures, but coaches and players say they are ready for anything. They just want to play.
"One of my coaches said, 'Well, at least it won't be really hot like it is in August and we're worrying about kids passing out and cramping up,' " Pardun said. "It will be cold, and I'm someone who hates being cold. I've coached baseball forever, and I know how the cold goes in spring. It can be terrible. But you just layer up and bundle up and at least in football, you're kind of moving around a lot, more than you do in baseball, so you can stay warm.
"Plus, we've had the fortune of playing late in the season the last few years, so we've gotten accustomed to some of that cold. It can affect the way you play and what you do, but you adjust. We'll be ready for it. And the nice thing is, it will get warmer as we go along instead of getting colder, like it does in the fall with the playoffs."
No playoffs means creativity
There will be no state playoffs, but most conferences are trying to do something special to end the season.
In the Mid-Suburban League, for example, teams will play their division games through the first five weeks of the season. Then in Week 6, they will cap off the season with crossovers with the corresponding team in the other division, with the featured game on the last weekend being the first-place teams in each division playing each other for the MSL championship.
In the DuPage Valley, teams will run through conference games over the first five weeks and then in Week 6, they will either match up against each other in a first place-second place matchup, third place-fourth place matchup and so on, or each conference team will take on a team from another conference. Those plans are still in the works.
In the Northern Lake County Conference, conference games will run through the first five weeks with the sixth week being used for a final conference game in what will be dubbed, Conference Rivalry Week. Antioch, for example, will play its biggest rival in Week 6, sister school Lakes. Grayslake Central will play crosstown rival Grayslake North.
"Those are always playoff-type games anyway," Glashagel said. "You're going to want those games to happen, and it will be a great way to end the season."
It will be a season that will be hard to forget.
"It will be a different season, it will be unique. But it will be a season that we will all remember," Stine said.