Sumter gears up to hit the field after long summer of waiting


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The wait is finally over for Sumter High School football.

After a summer where the Gamecocks were not able to do workouts as a team as Sumter School District chose not to allow it due to the coronavirus pandemic, they will finally get to gather for the first time on Monday. Head coach Mark Barnes was glad to finally get that news this past Monday.

"It was mostly that I was happy for the kids, happy for the players, especially your senior players that were missing football and were questioning if they were going to have the opportunity to play or not," said Barnes. "I've been doing this for a long time, so it's more just a relief for our players in our program to know that they're going to have an opportunity to go out and play or have the same opportunity as everybody else is and know that they're going to have a chance."

While it's easy to be frustrated about missed time, Barnes is focusing on the opportunity to start conditioning. One reason he isn't too concerned about starting later is that the South Carolina High School League already voted to push back the start of the season. That means the Gamecocks will have time to prepare by starting on Monday.

"From a preparation standpoint, we knew we were going to have enough time," said Barnes. "The season was pushed back to the 25th (of September), and I've done this for a long time, so I'm used to starting up Aug. 1 and having to play Aug. 28 or something. We know what we're doing schedule-wise, and we're not going to rush to get out there this week because we want to make sure it's organized right, we follow (social distancing, disinfecting and cleansing) procedures and we put our players' safety first and make sure we've got everything set up so we can do it the right way and take care of the precautions that we need to. It's what you do."

Barnes and his coaching staff have been preparing for this moment all summer long. While Sumter could've technically started this past Tuesday when the district decided to allow its high schools to begin Phase 1.5 workouts, Barnes and the other Sumter School District football head coaches - Crestwood's Roosevelt Nelson and Lakewood's Larry Cornelius -- all elected to wait until Monday . They didn't necessarily need the time to do extra planning, but they wanted to make sure they could get all of their athletes on the same page.

"We've had a lot of planning," joked Barnes. "We had a spring practice plan that got cancelled, we had a June 1 plan that got cancelled, then we had a first week of July plan that got cancelled. When they moved it back two weeks everything got a lot easier. We've met a lot as a staff to get people in the right groups, how can we use the numbers that they give us in the most beneficial way to get us ready for the first game.

"Now it's about who has their physical, who's got their paperwork and who can we get in touch with. Believe it or not, our guys want to play football, but we don't have contact with them all the time, we don't have all of their phone numbers, their phone numbers change and you lose contact with them. Every coach in this state is going through the same thing. We're just a little bit behind in that, because we haven't found them all yet, but we will."

The Sumter coaching staff has put a lot of thought into how it will efficiently start workouts. Luckily, it has the benefit of seeing how other schools have approached these workouts and has seen what's worked and what hasn't.

"The biggest problem I've heard from most coaches is not the practice part, that's easy, it's the before- and after-practice part, making sure they're social distancing when they check in and social distance when they leave," said Barnes. "That's the thing I talked about the most today in our meeting. We're going to be organized, we're going to have our groups, but how do we handle them checking in and how do we handle them when they leave is just as important. That's what our charge is from our school district, the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) and DHEC (Department of Health and Environmental Control) and all those. You have to social distance when you get through. That's not normal, that's their sit-around-together time, and so we've got to do a good job on that stuff."

One way to manage that problem is to start smaller. Sumter is going to start by only bringing in varsity players and a handful of junior varsity players on Monday. After a week, it will start to bring in the rest of the JV players and B-team freshmen players as to not dive into the deep end immediately.

"The smartest thing we're doing is we're not trying to do it all in one week," said Barnes "We're going to bring our varsity back one week and a few of the guys that were JV players last year, then we're going to bring the rest of the JV and the ninth- graders in, so we've got two weeks to get it all merged and make it look right, then hopefully when we get to the 8th (of September), some of the restrictions of how many people can be around people are gone and it becomes a normal football practice for you.

"And if you don't reach that point, it doesn't really matter what you did before that point anyway, if that makes sense. If we don't reach that point where we get to practice normal, then everything we're doing right now is for naught anyway."

On top of limiting the first week to mostly returning varsity players, Sumter is going to split the team into two workouts. The first one will go from 4:15 p.m. to 6:15 and the second will be from 6:30 to 8:30. Those groups will then be split into four sub-groups, which will stay together the entire practice. Each of those groups will have a total of 16 players and coaches. While its far from normal, Barnes will try to keep these groups running as much like a normal workout as he can. They will split time between the weight room and conditioning, while also working through drills.

"It's going to look like four mini practices, because we're going to have four groups out there at a time," said the Sumter head coach. "We're going to have a practice schedule, and it's not going to be just go out there and run around in circles and try to get in shape. We're going to lift weights; we're going to lift one day, run the next day and the rest of it is going to be getting back to the fundamentals of football and how we're going to install stuff and use this time to make us a better football team. It has to be four little mini practices and be as organized as it can."

Barnes and his staff have worked on the details of these groups so much that he's going to even have them park in specific places so those groups can efficiently socially distance and get their temperatures checked.

"We're going to have an assigned place that you're going to stay at. Our offensive skill kids are going to be on one field and there's going to be 16 total of us out there, including coaches, and they're never leaving that field unless they go to the weight room," said Barnes. "We're getting down to the point where we're telling kids where to park their cars. You park your car in this area so we encourage everyone to have social distancing. We're going to have different check-in spots for every player based on what group you're in and they get picked up from that spot when their ride is going to pick them up, so we can encourage and demand that social distancing is followed."

Sumter will have strict protocols in place during practice. One of the more noteworthy protocols is that athletes will need to wear a mask while practicing. Barnes knows the protocols are in place to keep his athletes safe and he's happy to follow them. The key will be making sure the Gamecocks are doing everything they need to when they're not with the team.

"I've heard a lot of college coaches say this, and it's the most truthful thing anybody says, and it's that they're safer at practice than they are anywhere else they are," said Barnes. "Everybody is talking about how they have to wear a mask at practice and they have to stand six feet apart and all that and as much as you can, we're going to make that happen, but when they go home are they wearing masks and social distancing?

"Those things are going to be critical parts of if you're going to win or lose this year, because if you get a kid that gets the virus and he and whoever else has to sit out, now it affects Friday nights for you."

One of the other challenges Sumter has is getting everyone back on a weightlifting program. After all of the time away, some student-athletes haven't had the same access to weights. Barnes said this is going to be a 6-week process for the Gamecocks and the biggest key will be starting slow and ramping up, so they're ready for Week 1.

"We actually look at that as a 6-week project, because our first game is six weeks away," said Barnes. "The worst thing we could've done was not lift, not lift, not lift and then start lifting when you get close to a game, because then you're going to get sore. We understand they're going to get sore, so we're going to start out with low weight and high rep(etition)s and understand that we've got to build them back up to where they were and we're not going to get there in six weeks, but we're going to get a lot closer.

"One group is going to lift three days a week, the other is going to lift two days a week, then the next week the group that lifted two is going to lift three and if you're not lifting, you're running. You're going to lift or run and practice every day."

Sumter has to jump over a lot of hurdles to get back to the football field, but they're hurdles it is more than happy to clear.

"We're all dying to do it," said Barnes on starting workouts on Monday. "Year-round sports now, where you see your kids all the time, you lose some of that. Us old coaches understand it, that first-day-of-practice attitude that everyone is excited to be there, and I think that's getting ready to happen.

"I'm excited about Monday, I'm sure our players are excited about Monday. I think everyone is going to be thankful to be out there and enjoy the opportunity to do the things we love again."