After the gyms closed down under Colorado’s “stay-at-home” order, Caden Dollar would drive his pickup truck into the alley behind his family’s home in Fort Collins, pop it into neutral, and push it up and down the small stretch of road.
“It’s pretty heavy to get it going,” Dollar said. “It’s good for you though."
Dollar, 17, is an incoming senior linebacker for the Fossil Ridge High School football team. He dreams of playing Division I football in college and he knew that he couldn’t let the coronavirus pandemic get in the way of his training.
But while Dollar has been able to continue his workouts, whether he will have a senior season of football is still uncertain.
Officials with the Colorado High School Activities Association declared its intention to hold all sports within the 2020-2021 school year back in May and submitted plans for each sport to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. But as the state grapples with rising rates of COVID-19, questions about the safety of resuming fall sports or even in-person learning still linger.
In late July, CHSAA announced that boys golf would be allowed to continue with no modifications. Four days later, softball and boys tennis gained approval, but with fewer games and smaller rosters. The fate of other fall sports — which include football, volleyball and field hockey among others — remains undetermined.
The uncertainty has pushed coaches into a balancing act of managing their eager players’ expectations while still helping them prepare for a season that may never come. The cancellation of spring sports and summer events has already damaged some players’ hopes of a college athletic career and taken away an important part of the high school experience for many other athletes.
Even as disappointment wells up in high school athletes, the threat of COVID-19 still looms.
“The majority that reach out to us say ‘let the kids play, just let them play,’ but that’s not how CHSAA operates,” said Rhonda Blanford-Green, the CHSAA commissioner. “We are an extension of the educational model and therefore for us to resume there have to be standards of risk minimization."
Coloradans have already caught a glimpse of those risks even before sports have gone into full swing.
A summer sports camp at Colorado Academy, a private school in Lakewood, led to a COVID-19 outbreak that was linked to at least 27 cases, according to CDPHE. The agency recently reported three cases among staff members in the Fleming High School football program in Logan County and eight positive cases and nine suspected cases in athletes on Colorado State University’s football team. CSU suspended all football activities Wednesday after the report was released.
The Poudre School District, which includes Fossil Ridge where Dollar plays, also decided to shut down summer practices through July after two athletes at two different schools tested positive for the disease.
For Dollar, the shutdown was a letdown, but he’s still hopeful for fall football. He sees his senior season as a shot to impress the Division I coaches he longs to play for. It would also be an important milestone in his high school career.
“I’m really hoping that we’re able to have football this year so that I can demonstrate on the field to those coaches, that I’m a scholarship player,” Dollar said. “And also, you know, it seems like everybody remembers their senior year of high school football. I don’t want to miss out on that memory with my buddies.”
For athletes who will get to play in the fall, the announcement has come as a relief. Hadlee Reichert, a rising senior who plays shortstop and third base for Broomfield High School, said that softball will be a bright spot in what otherwise may be a tough senior year.
“I don't know if we'll have football games or if I'll be able to go to my last homecoming dance, but I'm just so glad that we get to play and I get to play my last season of high school softball,” she said.
Even if all sports are able to resume, Reichert, Dollar and other prospective 2021 college recruits have already had to contend with an interrupted recruiting process. Due to the pandemic, NCAA suspended all in-person recruiting for college athletes. While many 2021 graduating athletes are already committed to a college, some were still hoping to woo college scouts during their senior season or attract better scholarship offers.
“No colleges can reach out to you and you can’t reach out to them,” Reichert said. “It just all sucks. There aren’t really better words to put it.”
Even the practices that are allowed have come with difficult changes. Temperature checks, masks and social distancing have become the norm even for contact sports like football.
This time last year, football practices at Cherry Creek High School were in full swing. The early conditioning and training helped lay the groundwork for the team's undefeated 2019 season and 5A state championship. This year, Cherry Creek players haven’t even been able to put their pads on. They just recently introduced footballs for a limited amount of drills.
“Basically it was just an opportunity to see the kids,” said David Logan, Cherry Creek's head football coach.
While it’s been tough, Logan has tried to use the difficulties as a teaching moment.
“It’s a good life lesson because you don’t always get everything you want. You don’t always get it when you want and sometimes you get it under adverse conditions,” he said. “If we're allowed to play in the fall, then nobody's going to feel sorry for us that we didn't have the same sort of preparation than we do under normal conditions.”
Cherry Creek has had more preparation than some other schools. Without formal guidance from the state, a patchwork of regulations has emerged from school district to school district. Denver Public Schools has only allowed conditioning practices.
“I know that Denver County was hit harder and I know that Denver Public Schools needs to make their choices based off that. But knowing that in other counties, kids are practicing, just because their numbers are lower, is hard,” said Denny Bryan, the volleyball coach at Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver.
While Bryan understands the risks that sports present in spreading COVID-19, she also believes that there are risks in not having high school sports.
“I know that my job is definitely not like an essential job by any means, but I do know that these kids need us.”
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