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High school student-athletes from Sumter School District have been frustrated this summer as they've waited for permission from the district administration to take part in workouts.
That wait came to an end this week, as the district gave Sumter, Lakewood and Crestwood high schools permission to begin workouts for all fall sports programs. All three schools elected to wait until Monday to begin Phase 1.5 workouts in order to get everything in order with the protocols from the coronavirus pandemic.
Lakewood football head coach Larry Cornelius can't wait for Monday to roll around.
While many people have focused on the lost time this summer, Cornelius is more concerned about making sure workouts start without a hitch.
"We're just moving forward, man," said Cornelius. "Obviously, I was very happy, as well as the coaching staff. We've had several coaches meetings this summer, getting ready for the anticipated date. We decided not to start today (workouts could have begun this past Tuesday), just because of the communication aspect. We wanted to make sure all of our players are aware of our procedures and protocols, as well as parents, so we decided that we're going to start on Monday. We wanted to make sure when we do start, we're starting in the right fashion with no hiccups."
Cornelius also knows that some of his players aren't starting from scratch. A group of athletes from Sumter, Lakewood and Crestwood got together for weekly workouts for the last few weeks to show that organized workouts could be done safely. Cornelius was proud of his players that took part.
"It really shows who wants it bad and who doesn't," said Cornelius. "A lot of our players, and Sumter and Crestwood for that matter, have been working out since March. We're going to find out real quick next Monday who has been doing the right things, who was slacking a little bit. It's our job to get them right in a short amount of time, which is going to be a great challenge."
The Lakewood coaching staff has been preparing for the return to practice all summer long. One of the few benefits to starting this late has been seeing what other programs are doing. Cornelius and his staff are spending this week finalizing how to put those lessons into action.
"First and foremost, we've got to make sure we're following correct protocols and procedures, so I think a lot of that has been to see what other programs have been doing," said Cornelius. "That's one advantage, one of the few advantages, to not starting yet is that we've gotten to see what area teams have done, what has worked and what hasn't worked as far as temperature checks, the pods, whether you're going a tier system, etc. I feel like we've gathered a lot of information, so we're going to be better prepared than some of these other schools that started in June."
One of the biggest issues Cornelius noticed other teams running into was clusters of athletes at temperature checks. Lakewood decided to combat this problem by doing temperature checks once athletes get into their pod, or designated area and group, rather than checking everyone together upon arrival.
"With the COVID(-19) aspect as far as temperature checks, I think that's a big thing," said the Lakewood head coach. "Originally, when we created a schedule in early June, we were going to do temperature checks when they first came in. What other schools found out was that there was a large logjam. So instead, what some of the other programs started to do was do the temperature checks when they got into their pods and that worked out a lot better. That's what we're going to be doing.
"As they report to their particular facility and pod, we'll have two coaches at each pod and they're going to be doing the temperature checks and asking the health questions as well."
Cornelius said the next issue was just sorting out how to organize those pods of athletes. Luckily, Lakewood gets to start in Phase 1.5, rather than Phase 1 like other schools did back in June and July. That means those pods are allowed to have 16 players and coaches, rather than 10, which makes breaking those groups down by position much simpler.
"Working out the pods correctly, that's been a challenge," said Cornelius. "Luckily, in Phase 1.5, you can have more kids in our pod, which helps out a lot. If we were going to start under Phase 1, it was going to be a real challenge because you can only have 10, including the coaches, and it's hard to do it by position. When you can do 16 now including coaches, for the most part we're able to create our pods based on position, which helps greatly.
"They're going to stay in the same facility the whole workout, so we don't have to move them from one facility to the next, so we can do our speed training, our conditioning and fundamentals for that particular position within that group within that facility."
Lakewood also had to decide if it is going to bring all of its athletes in at the same time. Cornelius and his staff elected to hold one practice time with the whole team, spreading them out in six or more areas of the campus. The biggest question mark at this point is roster size, but Cornelius has plans in place if more Gators show up than expected.
"At this point, we're going to have everyone on campus at the same time because we have an anticipated smaller roster in comparison to someone like Sumter High School or even Crestwood for that matter," said Cornelius. "We're going to use six facilities with the possibility of a seventh or eighth for what we'd call an overflow in case we get more kids that come out.
"All three high schools are in a particular situation where we don't necessarily know all incoming freshmen, because we didn't have the opportunity to have spring practice, get to know them during the summer. So we may have 20 freshmen, we may have 30 freshmen, we may have 40 freshmen, we don't know until that day. We are communicating, obviously, via social media and making as many contacts as possible."
Cornelius also noted that having one practice session is the plan for now, but that can always change if need be.
"We are having everyone on campus at the same time, but if we need to revisit that and have two different sessions, then we'll go with that mode," said the Lakewood head coach. "We're definitely going to make sure we're following proper protocol. We're not going to try to be on that grey line."
With everyone spread across the campus, Cornelius also had to decide how to organize weightlifting. Because many of his players haven't had access to weight rooms, Cornelius decided to start very slow. Instead of getting groups into the weight room, the Gators will do more body-weight training to build up to a proper lifting plan.
"Our approach right now is actually to not use the weight room, use the actual weights. We're going to do a lot of body-weight stuff, a lot of basic athletic movement, because our opinion is that they need to be in good enough shape to be able to hit the weights," said Cornelius. "You've got to think, for the most part, they haven't been hitting a true weight program since the beginning of March, so if you bring them into the weight room, they're not going to be ready for that, and it's not going to be an effective workout.
"We're going to access it after the first week, see where we're at with our body types, with our conditioning. We obviously want to add in the weight rooms as soon as possible, but we're not going to go right in there right away. We want to make sure they're in decent enough shape that when we're hitting the weights, we're hitting them effectively."
While planning for workouts has forced Cornelius and his staff to do a lot of tinkering, he doesn't mind the extra challenges. He says that's just what being a coach is all about.
"That's just a part of being a coach. Every week for a game, you're having to make adjustments. I try to look at it that way," said the Lakewood coach. "It does get tiresome, not knowing if you can work out or if we're going to have a season, but you can't concern yourself with that. You have to go with the rules that you're given at the time and set a plan for that. We teach our kids that you can't control what people do, you just control what you do."
Cornelius also admits that he would love to be on a regular football schedule and wishes he had a summer full of 7-on-7 scrimmages under his belt, but he's also willing to do whatever it takes to get his kids on the field safely to prepare for their first game.
"I think our motivation has been great throughout this period, and I think we're just excited to finally hit the field in some fashion," said Cornelius. "It's obviously not going to be the way we want it, as far as we'd love to have the whole team together and go out there and do 7-on-7s and hit the sleds, but we've gotta take it slow.
"We've gotta walk that fine line, because these kids are four months removed from a traditional weight and conditioning program. We want to get them in shape, we want to also make sure first and foremost that we're safe in doing that."
Cornelius also thinks this season can be an important lesson for his team, because life isn't always going to go according to plan.
"Another thing we teach our kids is that you have to face adversity in life. I'm not worried about the past and what we could or could not do. We just can't have excuses," said Cornelius. "We're starting on Aug. 17 and our goal is to get ready for, first and foremost, Game 1 against Camden and try to go out there and get that W. We can't control what happens outside of our program, we can only control what happens inside our program. We're going to be focused and do our very best as a coaching staff to get our young men right for Game 1."
At the end of the day, Cornelius and his staff are just glad to get their athletes back together.
"I don't know if it's a word, but I'm ultra-excited," said Cornelius. "Yes, I use my phone and I text, but I'm a face-to-face person, and I'm just so excited to see these kids. I know they're hungry.
"My belief in athletics is that there are some kids that just need athletics to get them out of the streets, out of their environment and put them in a great environment. I know I'm excited, I know my coaching staff is excited, I know my kids are excited. Yesterday was just a whirlwind of just texts and calls. Everyone is just high on life right now."
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