Robert E. Lee uses small groups to safely work out during pandemic


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The Robert E. Lee Academy football team is trying to keep things simple as it goes through summer workouts during the pandemic. For head coach David Rankin, the key has been small group sizes. The Cavaliers may even keep those groups small when the South Carolina Independent School Association allows them to expand because of how well things are working for the Cavaliers.

"I've got them in three groups of five and a group of eight and two groups come at 8:30 (a.m.) with one in the weight room and one outside running and then at 9:45 another group comes," said Rankin. "We haven't done a whole lot throwing the ball or anything like that. We're just in the weight room and getting in shape basically.

"SCISA said we can go to 15 next week, next Thursday, I don't know that I am. Maybe we'll do 7-on-7 and stuff like that. Most of my offensive people are back, my linemen are back. I've got new receivers, a running back and a quarterback, but the ones that are going to play have been in the system and know what we do, so I don't think that it's imperative that we get out there and do a whole lot before the first day of practice."

One of the biggest benefits to having smaller groups -- other than making it easier to social distance -- has been personal accountability. Rankin loves having a maximum of nine people in the weight room or in a group running at once because he can make sure each one of them is putting in the work they need to.

"The other thing it's done for us is that the weight room, nine in the weight room has really worked well, because you can focus more with them. The less people in there, the more you can have them do it the right way. They can't, I don't wanna say cheat, but cheat themselves I reckon," said Rankin. "You don't have to stay so hard on them, because you can see all of them, so it keeps them from cheating the system a little bit I reckon. I've enjoyed having nine in the weight room."

Those smaller groups have also made Rankin and his staff keenly aware of how they are using their time. REL has very specifically regimented workout days, because it wants to keep things clean and efficient. SCISA has allowed teams 12 practice days - practices that involve a football in any way -- this summer, but the Cavaliers have mostly stuck to basic workouts because it's the easiest way to keep everyone healthy.

"We're supposed to get 12 practices where we can run all we want to. If you take a ball out, that's a practice and you get 12 of those. I've kinda held onto those, we've kinda thrown the ball around three or four days, but we haven't done a whole lot of that," said Rankin. "If you take a football out and use it in your drills, that counts as one of your days. If you line up on defense, that counts as one of your days because of that. I only get 12 of those and I still have eight of those left.

"I'm probably going to have some left when we start because I'm going to stay at nine (people at a time), we're checking temperatures, we're washing hands big time, wiping everything down in the weight room. We've stayed as careful as we can and on the field we stay spread out pretty good."

While REL has been efficient with its workouts, there have been challenges to practicing during the pandemic. Rankin said the biggest challenge has been the lack of team building, especially with the younger players.

"One of the negatives is that we're not getting any team building, no leadership," said Rankin. "Our younger guys don't lift as much as our older guys, so our younger guys aren't getting pushed or seeing that leadership of how to do things the right way (because they're split up)."

It's been far from a regular summer at REL, but Rankin said his team has been thrilled to be able to do anything football-related.

"They've responded really well because they're so happy to be here, they'll do just about anything to be here," said Rankin. "We were talking today about what's going to be the criteria to go back to school, what's going to be the protocol and one of the things is they're going to have to wear a mask. Those boys want to come back to school so bad that they don't care about that."

Summer workouts have been complicated across South Carolina as the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise. Several local schools are yet to start workouts, while many across the state like Manning started workouts only to put them on hiatus as the numbers increased. Some students around the REL program have stayed away from workouts because they have family members that are more susceptible to the virus and that's quite alright with Rankin. He knows that the key to continuing workouts is making sure his team stays healthy.

"The thought process there is that if we don't have a problem, we're going to keep going," said Rankin on the possibility of canceling workouts. "If we have a problem, then we'll re-access that. If someone gets COVID then we'll back up and regroup, but we're going forward. As long as no one is showing symptoms, we're going to keep rolling."

Despite all the craziness and speculation, Rankin still thinks his team will play football this year, but he also isn't na ve enough to think it's going to be business as usual this fall.

I think we're going to play football this year in the private schools. I think we're still going to have some limitations as far as contact maybe, at practice they'll probably tell us not to have as much contact as we normally do, try to keep your social distancing as much as possible," said Rankin. "I don't know that we'll have any scrimmages. We've got them lined up, but we're not going against another team 7-on-7 yet, so I don't see them saying on Aug. 7 we can go scrimmage.

"That's just my opinion, but I think we'll probably limit it down to no scrimmages and just go into the first game. That's just my guess. If the numbers keep going up, it might be a shortened season of some kind and just do region games. I think we're going back to school. I know at Lee Academy, unless the government shuts it down, Lee Academy is going back to school."

Limiting contact is going to be difficult for coaches across the country as it tries to prepare for a season of one of the most contact-heavy sports during the pandemic. Rankin isn't entirely sure what practices will look like whenever the Cavaliers will be able to start.

"That's going to be tough. This is my 35th year and I've probably hit a little bit more than most coaches. To be physical, you have to be physical in practice, in my opinion. That's the way I was brought up," said Rankin. "I know if we get our tail kicked in a game, we're going to go out and hit a little more, because I wanna be physical. I don't know how that's going to work. There's definitely going to be some adjustments made as far as practice schedules and that kind of stuff."

No matter what the fall looks like, Rankin is happy with how well things have gone at REL so far.

"For us it's gone great. We started on June 1, we have not had anyone with a fever yet," said Rankin. "That might be as good as we can hope for. It can't go any better so far; we've followed protocols and what SCISA has asked us to a T."