Back in action: High school football returns after challenging 2020

Hope is that cancellations, quarantines are just memories

42 MATTHEW SHINKLE/South Jersey Sports Weekly: Clearview’s Aiden McCullough rushes through the line of scrimmage during the team’s final drills Thursday, Aug. 26 before its game the following day at home against Cherry Hill West.

After a very limited season last year due to COVID quarantines and cancellations, the 2021 high-school football campaign is about to start and brings with it the potential for a normal slate of games.

“It just feels right again,” said Haddonfield head coach Frank DeLano. “It feels like it’s football time, and it’s not disrespecting what we were able to do last year in a world where we at least had opportunities to play, whereas some other schools or teams didn’t at all. So we didn’t take anything for granted … but we’re enjoying getting back to a more traditional season thus far.”

Preparing for last season’s regular season of high-school football was a challenge: Permitted summer workouts started much later than usual, teams weren’t able to lift together in  weight rooms leading up to the season, and a two-week quarantine was forced on all high-school sports teams before play.

In getting ready for the new season, there’s been a return to normalcy in the format of a traditional preseason and ramp up to the schedule. Plans are to allow at least 10 regular-season games for teams, a year after many were fortunate to see three or four.

Clearview head coach Steve Scanlon, now entering his fifth year at the helm for the Pioneers, could only have his team play three games last season due to five shutdowns related to COVID.

“We had seven of our eight original games cancelled last season,” he said. “You could see it all around South Jersey… It was a matter of when, not if, that it would affect your season, and then it kind of set a bomb off for the rest of your season.

“We were trying to focus on having fun when we could during the season, something that might honestly get lost during a typical football season,” Scanlon added.

The ability to more easily schedule in person rather than virtual practices with one’s own team, as well as practicing and scrimmaging with other squads in the lead-up to this year’s season, has been a benefit to participants such as head coach Mike Schatzman, who enters his fourth season at Washington Township.

“It’s felt fairly normal for us up to this point, outside a few slight adjustments from the typical pre-COVID preseason,” Schatzman said. “Earlier this summer, we had the opportunity to go to Haddonfield for a joint practice, which was a great chance to get away and visit somewhere else and see somebody else in practice. That was definitely beneficial to our guys to be able to do that after what the last year-and-a-half had been like.”

For the Washington Township team — which at one point last season had 27 days between games — Schatzman said a return to normal throughout summer workouts and the preseason has certainly brought back a positive feeling that was lacking last season for all programs across the country.

“We remind all the guys that they’re getting an opportunity right now that the guys last year didn’t get,” Schatzman said. “We want them to make the most of what they can and enjoy it while they can.”

For coaches, the ability to get back to what they know works best for their programs this summer brought back a sense of stability.

“We’re creatures of habit; we like our routines,” DeLano said. “With everything that we all went through last year, there wasn’t much of it that felt real with all the obstacles you had to navigate for making a game and season happen, outside of doing it strictly from a football perspective.”