During the COVID-19 pandemic, football practice is barely recognizable at Long Beach Wilson and Mater Dei high schools. What was once football now resembles more of a cross country practice. Practices without pads, sanitizing footballs and weight training outside have become the new norm for these two high schools.
On July 20, the California Interscholastic Federation announced in a press release that fall high school sports were going to have a modified schedule beginning in January 2021. Although players and coaches are excited to get back onto the field and play a game, there are concerns.
These high schools shut down in March when COVID-19 began to spread throughout the United States. That was the last time that Long Beach Wilson head coach Mark Ziegenhagen and Mater Dei head coach Bruce Rollinson saw their athletes up until this summer. Both teams were finally able to be in person and on the field this July, but there were so many COVID-19 guidelines in place that the football practices were near unrecognizable.
“We were a cross country team trying out for football,” Ziegenhagen said. There was no contact, no weight room and no pads present at practice.
It has been difficult for coaches to create and stick to a schedule for their team. Teams were able to practice in the early weeks of summer until they were shut down again for another couple of weeks. Mater Dei shut down their facilities the last week of June and for Long Beach Wilson, it was the first week of July. California saw a major spike in COVID-19 cases during the summer months which led to the school’s eventual shut down of football activities. There were 6,419 new COVID-19 cases on June 23. That number rose to 8,878 new cases on July 4.
“It has been the most anxiety ridden, stressful time period in my tenure going into my 32nd season as the head coach,” Rollinson said. “We are in a time where no one has answers or knows what to do and how to handle it.”
With the lack of equipment the Mater Dei football team is allowed to use, Rollinson is concerned about keeping his players in shape.
"The reality is we are not really playing football, Rollinson said. “If you have a jump over a bag contest, we’re going to win that, because that’s all we’re doing.”
The CIF announced that high school teams can begin to use pads in practice on December 14 with games slated to begin on January 8.
“Right now, I am more concerned about the condition and the body of kids playing football,” Ziegenhagen said. As a former player, Ziegenhagen knows what it takes to be ready for a season, and he believes that his team needs more physical reps in practice before they are ready.
Current Long Beach Wilson seniors Michael Bruner and Alama “Simba” Collins are eager to get back to playing the game they love. Both have found ways to stay in football shape throughout quarantine, mainly including home workouts.
Bruner and Collins are team leaders, both reaching out to teammates one-on-one asking them to meet up to workout outside of school. Bruner, a 6′1, 200 pound wide receiver, has stepped up to rally his teammates.
“COVID-19 will only affect us if others don’t want it as bad as us seniors do,” Bruner said. “We are trying to get the whole team to have the mindset that nothing is going to stop us.”
But what COVID-19 has halted for the senior class is the college recruiting process.
Bruner has one offer, but the pandemic has stagnated the recruiting process for him. He said he was receiving lots of interest from coaches pre-COVID-19, but nothing has happened since quarantine began. Ziegenhagen said that he does not hear from coaches anymore when it comes to recruitment. Normally, Ziegenhagen said there would be college coaches at practice every day during spring football.
“All we can do now is pump these guys out on Twitter, Instagram and social media where it is more instantaneous for recruiting, but it still is not the real thing,” Ziegenhagen said.
Recently, social media has become a major platform for players to promote themselves to college recruiters.
College coaches are beginning to ask for more agility film such as vertical and broad jumps from players. “We tell them they have to promote themselves as well, now is the time they have to be even bigger promoters of themselves, pumping out as much film as they can,” Ziegenhagen said.
Players now have to be their own biggest advocates, whereas in the past, that was their coaches role.
Rollinson said sending videos of players to college coaches is the best recruiting tool to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But social media is used both ways in the recruiting process.
“Coaches have been doing a great job with virtual tours...it’s just different not being on campus, but thank God I’m a junior,” Domani Jackson, a junior on the Mater Dei football team, said.
Jackson is the #1 cornerback in the class of 2022. As a junior, Jackson is grateful that he still gets another year to play football as well as to visit colleges.
Jackson knows where he wants to play, but when asked which that school was, Jackson did not disclose.
Many players are now faced with making their college decision based off of a virtual tour. Domani said virtual tours don’t provide the player with the feeling and atmosphere of a school.
“It’s not about what the school looks like, but more about how comfortable you are,” Domani said. “Over a virtual tour you can’t feel that.”
For Jackson, coaches call him more with opportunities to take virtual tours as well as wanting to watch film of his practices.
Although Jackson is set to make his college decision in the coming months, he is focused on this season.
“We have to bring back the Championship,” Jackson said.
The future of Long Beach Wilson and Mater Dei players is uncertain. For now, both teams will focus on what they can control: their conditioning, practices and social media presence.