Delaware’s high school athletes back on the field after roller coaster ride

The fall seasons were initially off, but vocal parents led authorities to relent and allow schools to play during the pandemic — with masks and other precautions.

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Players on the sidelines also wore their masks and kept some distance from each other. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Players on the sidelines also wore their masks and kept some distance from each other. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Brandywine High School athletic director Rick Shea has a serene, pleased expression on his face as he watches the Bulldogs’ football team take on powerful Howard.

Shea knows his school is likely to fall on this sunny Saturday to the Wildcats, the defending Division II state champs. But what matters to Shea is that the contest is on — with proper precautions during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think it’s going really well,” Shea says in the first quarter as Brandywine takes an early lead. “Obviously, we have restrictions and the kids have bought into that on a day-to-day basis and practice. Plus, they are getting out of the house and they are getting to do something.”

Delaware’s high school athletes have been on a roller coaster ride since early this year. Spring seasons and some winter tournaments ended abruptly in March when the coronavirus pandemic led the governor to close schools.

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Brandywine athletic director Rick Shea says the kids are happy to be playing this fall. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Then, in August, fall school sports were postponed as public schools were limited to remote or hybrid-style learning. But after vocal parents complained, state officials relented, agreeing to shortened seasons with restrictions such as mask-wearing.

Athletes get temperatures taken before every practice and game, and quizzed to see if they have a fever, cough or other symptoms. A dozen or so schools have had to cancel games and quarantine for two weeks after a player or team official tested positive.

Shea said Brandywine hasn’t had any yet, but its volleyball team had to postpone a game when one opponent had a case of COVID-19.

“A couple weeks ago, I guess during the preseason, there was one kid that had a fever a couple days prior and he came to get checked in and we found out,’’ Shea said. “We immediately sent him home. He got tested and he was fine. So you have to watch, you have to take those things seriously.”

‘Sports is what really brings our school together’

At the Brandywine-Howard game, players, coaches, refs, cheerleaders, volunteers and the spectators sprinkled in the stands all wore face coverings. You couldn’t get a ticket without one.

The atmosphere on this sunny, cool day felt pretty much like any high school football game, though. Fans cheered their team’s big plays and bellyached at the refs. Coaches barked orders at players and sounds of pads colliding reverberated in the chilly air.

But it wasn’t really the same. Some schools aren’t allowing fans, but for this game, each player was allotted two tickets apiece, so about 100 people rooted on each side.

The school bands weren’t on hand and neither was Brandywine’s cheer squad, but Howard’s cheerleaders were full-throated and delighted to be there.

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Howard cheerleader Tylia Futch had been disappointed when fall sports were initially called off.

“Sports is what really brings our school together, especially because our football team, we don’t lose,’’ Futch told WHYY News. “So we were really excited when they said they were allowing sports and allowing cheerleaders to come to the sports, really grateful.”

Futch doesn’t even mind the mask.

“It’s not uncomfortable,’’ she said. “We obviously have to yell so we try not to make it slip off our noses. It’s pretty chilly outside so it keeps your face warm. Being loud is kind of a complication because you know the mask is in the way, but other than that it’s pretty fine.”

Howard cheerleader Tylia Futch says wearing the mask doesn’t bother her and even keeps her face warm. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Leaning by himself against a fence on the 30-yard line was Howard parent James Gibbs, who watched quietly as his son Tyair Spencer scored a touchdown to tie the game for Howard in the first quarter.

“I feel good about being here, about how they got everything spaced out,’’ Gibbs said. “Putting in all the precautions or COVID-19 and everything, especially among the players, so I think it’s working pretty well.

“Plus I have a lot of players meet at my house. Most of them are seniors and they wanted to play. I wanted them to play. A lot of them been playing since their freshman year, ninth grade, you know, so they wanted to go out with a bang, go ahead and get that second championship ring.”

Asked if Howard could actually win the state crown again, Gibbs didn’t hesitate. “Oh, they gonna do it!” he exclaims.

Howard parent James Gibbs said he impressed by how the schools prepared for the game, protecting players, officials and spectators alike. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

C.J. Coombes is a running back and free safety for Brandywine. He said that even with modifications, it’s still a game of blocking and tackling, runs and passes.

“It’s definitely different than a regular football season, but we were able to adapt to it pretty well,” Coombes said. “Besides the mask and the hand sanitizer and stuff like that, and the social distancing, nothing really changes. We’re still out there playing football.”

Coombes spoke with WHYY at halftime with Brandywine trailing by two touchdowns. But he exuded confidence.

“Yessir, the second half is ours,’’ the Brandywine player predicted.

‘If you want to play the sport, you got to wear the mask’

Brandywine parent Tyrone Sanders said his son George weighed whether to play his senior season as the coronavirus continued to spread in their state.

“It wasn’t going to go away overnight,” Sanders said. “But I spoke with him, told him the circumstances, consequences, talked to his mother about it. We went over what we thought, you know, what we knew.”

His son ultimately decided to strap on his pads. Other than some difficulty playing with a mask, the kid is making it work, Sanders said.

Brandywine and Howard played their high school football game last weekend under coronavirus restrictions. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

“So far, so good,” Sanders said. “We check on his health and everything. You know, he’s had a COVID test, he’s feeling fine. So at this point, the world goes on, right? I mean, this is going to be the new thing for right now, so if you want to play the sport, you got to wear the mask.”

And so the games are being played, the races being run. Not only football and volleyball but field hockey, cross country and boys’ soccer.

Donna Polk heads the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association. She says having sports has boosted morale among kids and their families and helps them be better students.

“It means a lot to our student athletes to be able to play and get back to structure and being with their friends, being with their coach who they rely on a lot to be motivators for them,” Polk said.

“A lot of our athletes do well when they are playing sports. Sports allows you to be disciplined and it carries over into the classroom.”

Fans wore face coverings and gathered in small groups away from others. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

But out on the gridiron at Brandywine on this autumn afternoon, the competitors were in the moment, playing the sport they love.

When the final whistle sounded, mighty Howard had prevailed over the dogged Brandywine Bulldogs.

The final score: 42 to 7.

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