In a time where nobody is more socially or digitally connected than teenagers, the separation from coaches, teammates and from a structured setting has many looking forward to July 6.

That is when in-person, socially-distanced workouts can begin, according to the IHSAA and in conjunction with Gov. Eric Holcomb’s reopening plan and the Indiana Department of Education’s (IDOE) official opening of schools.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit and schools were shut down on April 2, it’s been more than 10 weeks since coaches and players have been able to meet face to face, and everybody is looking forward to returning.

“I just really miss seeing the guys and showing up every day and trying to get better as a team,” Valparaiso offensive lineman John Hofer said.

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Vikings coach Bill Marshall said, “Moving forward ... it’ll be great for us, we’ll get to see our kids. More than anything else, I think that’s the most important part is seeing them again face to face and being able to interact with them. I know our coaches miss it and I’m pretty sure our players miss it.”

Valparaiso played in the Class 5A state championship game on Nov. 29, 2019 — a 27-20 loss to New Palestine. The Vikings have since added all-state quarterback Maximus Grimes, who transferred from Lafayette Jeff, and will need to get new starters familiar with their roles replacing a talented class.

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With around 110 players in the program working out with what they have in their homes, July and into August will be spent getting in playing shape.

“The big thing for us is getting them to a point where they’re ready to compete (in a physical state). I think being able to get our athletes back in shape is going to be huge,” Marshall said. “Not that they’re out of shape but there’s a very, very big difference between lining up for 60-70 plays against an opponent and going out and being in a weight room.”

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Safety is at the forefront of every coaches mind. Marshall said he is working with his administrators on a plan for a safe return.

“A lot of our July is going to be spent on the mental side of football, so the x’s and o’s and schemes,” Marshall said. “But more importantly, probably the strength and conditioning aspect of that. With that, there’s a lot of question marks still. Like how do you keep 110 kids to safely use the weight room, keeping everything sanitized — that’s a big question for our athletic department and our schools in general is how are you going to do that with so many kids?”

Highland coach Pete Koulianos, who is the Region 1 director for the Indiana Football Coaches Association, offered a “blind in the dark guess” that most programs will require masks for coaches and for players when they’re resting. Equipment will have to be wiped down and social distancing of 6 feet will be in effect.

For his program, it’ll be a gradual build up to playing shape by the time the ball is teed up in their season opener Aug. 21 at Griffith.

“The good majority of (our players) have been working out but we’re going to assume none of them have been and so we’re going to take a very, very slow approach,” Koulianos said. “Within that it’ll be very small groups. Each coach will probably be assigned a small group of kids. They’ll go through all their drills. We’re not using any equipment for the first couple of weeks.”

Programs that retain their coaches and those with veteran classes returning are certainly at an advantage since they don't have many changes to the playbook. The Morton Governors are coming off an 8-2 season, returning their starting offensive line and players at key positions but also have a new head coach in Mac Mishler.

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With an offseason wiped out, he and his coaching staff are having to take a different approach into the preseason when they’re allowed to meet again.

“From a football coach perspective you’ve got to focus on what are you going to hang your hat on offensively and defensively, what things do you want to make sure you’re really good at, and those have to be your priority when it comes to x’s and o’s,” he said.

The most important part when the pandemic hit for Mishler, and likely other programs, was getting the communication channels in place. Mishler said it was a bonus that he’s been in the program for a few years and is familiar with the kids already, and will lean on the leadership they have returning.

“Any time you’ve got strong senior leadership, it’s going to make your job a whole lot easier,” Mishler said. “When you’ve got guys like we have that not only understand how to play, how to win, how to be competitive, how to workout, how to train, that stuff rubs off on your underclassmen and helps contain things along for several years.”

Morton's Paris Hewlett, left, dodges Hobart's Matthew Benton in a 4A sectional game last fall. Hewlett is one of the senior leaders returning for the Governors. Kale Wilk, File, The Times

Last week the IHSAA announced that the COVID-19 Health and Safety Re-Entry Guidance sent to Indiana schools coincided with the regularly-scheduled first day of practices for all sports. For girls golf they can begin practice July 31 and play on Aug. 3. All other fall sports will begin practice on Aug. 3 and events on Aug. 15.

Focusing on conditioning is important for all programs throughout July because the pandemic wiping out the offseason makes the official practices even more important for putting the playbook in action. It’s a throwback to the previous decade.

“Once August rolls around, it’ll be very similar to where we were 14 years ago where you really had limited contact with your kids in the months of June and July, then all of a sudden August rolls around and it’s full speed ahead,” Marshall said.

While there are unknowns of whether the timeline will hold up, Mishler believes football will look a little different, too, with less gadget plays and maybe some sloppiness.

“Realistically, when the season starts in August ... if we do start when we’re supposed to start, I think those first couple of weeks a lot of teams will still be installing stuff. It’s going to be what are you going to hang your hat on and what are going to be the things you know you do well,” Mishler said.

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Though the time off from organized team workouts has been long, it could bring a new level of intensity to sports that hasn’t been seen.

“The absence of sports is going to make every athlete hungry,” Mishler said. “Whenever we get to return, you’re going to see athletes that are ready to go. I don’t mean from an in-shape perspective but sometimes kids need a little break. Sometimes that can help you a little bit, too, because kids will be rejuvenated because they haven’t had sports for so long.”

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