Football practices set to start, but concerns abound

By Earl Vaughan Jr.

It’s easy to see why restarting football practice is one of the most challenging endeavors in an athletic world overshadowed by COVID-19. After all, there many moving parts and different roles.
Beginning Monday, Cumberland County’s 10 high schools take on the task of starting off-season conditioning for football, with the hope of returning to competition on Feb. 26.
While the head coaches are glad for any chance to be back together with their athletes and preparing to play, they will be dealing with a host of protocols and limitations as the workouts begin.
Like his fellow coaches, Pine Forest’s Bill Sochovka has been staying in contact with his players and parents via

Bill Sochovka


virtual gatherings. “We want to be real positive with these kids, real flexible,’’ he said. “We know there are things that are going to come up, but their health is most important. It’s all about communication.
“If you’re not feeling well, don’t push it.’’
As a group, the coaches expressed concern about the physical condition of each of their players as they return to workouts. It was mid-March when the pandemic struck, and all workouts and competition across the state of North Carolina were shut down.
While many players have been trying to stay in shape at home, it will have been seven months since any of them had organized practice or play when football sessions resume Monday.

Bruce McClelland


Terry Sanford coach Bruce McClelland likely has an opinion held by many. “It’s just a team of a whole lot of unknowns,’’ he said. “I don’t know who to believe. I do know it’s a virus that spreads and is dangerous. That’s my ultimate; safety, safety, safety.’’
At each workout session, the players will be subjected to screening before and after practice, with temperatures taken and each player bringing his own water bottle.
When practice begins, the players will be split into pre-determined pods, mainly by position, and will work regularly with the same group. In the event a player in a pod contracts COVID-19, once a test is confirmed, that pod will be shut down, while the others will be allowed to continue practicing. 
That is one concern of the coaches, the lack of a true team atmosphere in practice after such a long period of being away from coaches and teammates.
“You’ve got a ton of new kids coming in,” McClelland said. “Transfers. Freshmen. New kids coming out to play. They don’t even know their teammates.’’
For now, they will be practicing without a football. There will be no running of plays. No 7-on-7 pass skeletons. 
“We pride ourselves on being multiple, but we’re going to have to trim a lot of the fat and go back to basics,’’ McClelland said. 
Jack Britt coach Brian Randolph is concerned about something off the field that’s critical: academics.

Brian Randolph


Cumberland County has a minimum 2.0 grade point average rule for athletes to be eligible. He’s concerned about the negative impact virtual classes is having on his players. “We want all of our guys to have a B average or better,’’ Randolph said. “We’re just trying to get those guys in the right vein of doing things in class.’’
Gray’s Creek coach David Lovette fears there may be uncertainty among players about workouts. He noted the county has had to retreat from plans to resume workouts a couple of times earlier this year.
“It’s like pulling hen’s teeth to get them to believe what we’re doing right now,’’ Lovette said. “We hope

David Lovette


everybody does get there, and we can do things safely.’’
It’s possible some players may decide against coming out for safety reasons. Cape Fear coach Jacob Thomas was contacted by one student who said his mother wanted him to sit out and wait until next season to play because of COVID-19.
“Some of the parents are very concerned,’’ Thomas said. “We all want to bring them back safely.’’

Jacob Thomas

In addition to assessing the conditioning level of all the players and trying to bring them back to as high a level of football shape as possible in the allotted time, the coaches expressed real concern about something that’s not available to them now: organized weight training.
McClelland’s Terry Sanford program is much like all the others, with players in the weight room about 95 percent of the year. Since the pandemic hit, players have been limited to working out on their own if they either had weights at home or weights they could use at a neighbor’s house.
“Some of these kids I haven’t seen since March,’’ Randolph said. “They are not going to be in football shape, but you can tell if they’ve taken care of their bodies. If NFL guys are pulling hamstrings and having leg issues, we may see some of the same in high school.’’
In spite of all the hurdles the coaches and players are going to have to face, Sochovka echoed the feeling of many of them when he said the chance to be back on the field is good news for everyone. 
“A lot of the kids are chomping at the bit to get out there and be around people,’’ he said, “to see different faces, a friend you haven’t seen since March because of COVID.
“I think from the whole mental and esteem part, and feeling good about yourself, that’s going to be crucial,” he said. “That whole energy you have on Friday night, getting ready to play. It’s going to be different, but it’s something the kids need to have.’’

Earl Vaughan Jr. 
CityView correspondent
NCHSAA Hall of Fame 2017
Fayetteville Sports Club Hall of Fame 2012