Delavan-Darien’s football players had been waiting weeks—even months—for Tuesday afternoon.
What was another 30 minutes?
A passing thunderstorm provided the latest delay to the fall high school sports season. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many area school districts to push their fall sports to a truncated spring season, had already postponed the start of football practice by more than a month.
Monday was the first day football, volleyball and boys soccer teams could officially begin practice by WIAA rule.
Like anything else during the pandemic, just how long this fall season might last—a few practices, a couple games or a full season?—is anyone’s guess.
“I’m just happy they’re getting a chance to try. At least we’re giving them a shot,” Comets head coach Hank Johnson said. “These are difficult times for everyone, and I understand what we’re going through. We’re just trying to make the best of it and see what we can do.
“I told the guys we have an opportunity that many in the state aren’t getting right now.”
According to WIAA figures, 68% of 11-man football teams in the state of Wisconsin will attempt to play this fall, while the rest have opted for attempting a spring season.
But of the 14 schools in The Gazette’s primary coverage area, only those in the Southern Lakes Conference—Delavan-Darien, Elkhorn and Lake Geneva Badger—are playing this fall.
Girls tennis, girls swim and cross country programs from those schools have already been competing over the past couple weeks.
Johnson said he has spent the past couple months adjusting practice plans in an attempt to make practices as productive as possible for his players while adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols.
“There are so many things that come out—guidelines and rules—that we were changing things up right up to a couple days ago,” Johnson said. “How do we make this work while keeping distanced? I think, for the first day, we did a good job.”
Johnson and his coaching staff all wore cloth face coverings during practice. Some players did, as well, and they were also given the option of wearing face shields.
Delavan-Darien boys soccer coach Mike Marse said his outdoor practices will be similar to usual circumstances, but he will likely utilize more small group sessions. Coaches must also question their athletes as they arrive to practices or competitions to make sure they are not experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms, he said.
The football, volleyball and boys soccer teams will only play conference games or matches during the regular season. The football season is set to kick off Sept. 25.
With their seasons now officially underway, both Marse and Johnson sounded cautiously optimistic.
“I don’t want to look too far in advance, because we can’t control that,” Johnson said. “You always tell your seniors that this is it and to enjoy every day, because you never know if you’ll get hurt or anything like that. Now, though, it’s not just seniors, it’s everybody. The whole season could be done tomorrow.”
“I’m somewhat hopeful, because these guys already spend a lot of time together, and a lot of them play on a club team together, so they’ve been around each other all summer,” Marse said of his soccer team. “I worry more about the school having an outbreak.
“I feel like everyone is pretty pessimistic on it, like, ‘Oh, you’re never going to make it to the end of the season.’ Well, maybe we will. If we follow the rules, you never know.”
If the seasons do move forward, the next question Marse will be curious about is the potential for a postseason. His Comets have reached the WIAA state tournament three times since 2014 and won state titles in 2014 and 2016. But just 64% of the state’s boys soccer teams are playing this fall, and the WIAA has yet to decide if it will offer tournaments or “culminating events” this fall.
That is a bridge that can be crossed, if necessary, down the road. For now, Johnson is telling his players to never take a moment for granted.
“I think the kids are more excited than ever for practices,” Johnson said. “They get to hang out with their guys, and they’ll get to hit. If we get to play some games, it’s going to be even better.
“We’re just taking advantage of everything we can do. And we’ll enjoy each day, even if it’s 57 degrees and raining.”