In-person classes are weeks in and COVID-19 is surging in Region schools and the Hoosier State at large.
That has trickled into sports as three football games were canceled this week due to COVID-19 precautions, and it’s left teams to scramble to find opponents and others to play with part of their team quarantined.
Protocols for football teams are similar to, if not the same as last year, and are left up to individual school districts to determine.
“Last year was unique and we got by it, through it and moved on, but that hasn’t happened and here we are back at the beginning in some circumstances,” Andrean coach Chris Skinner said. “We’re going to approach it similar to last year and make sure we have a chance to play all nine regular-season games.”
The 59ers were one of 10 Region football teams to complete the full nine-game regular-season schedule in 2020. EC Central and Clark were schools that had to cancel their first-round playoff games, prematurely ending their seasons.
This week alone three games have been canceled, and IHSAA rules state the games are ruled a “no contest” instead of a forfeit even if no opponent is found. Each team makes the playoffs regardless of record. In Illinois, the team that cancels will forfeit unless their scheduled opponent finds a new game. The IHSA playoffs differ in that it takes five wins to be playoff eligible and six wins guarantee a playoff berth.
Highland scrambled to find a game against Knox after West Side discovered “potential COVID-19 cases involving a few (West Side) football team members,” triggering testing, quarantines and the cancellation, public relations consultant Chelsea Whittington told The Times.
Boone Grove had its game with South Central canceled Wednesday afternoon. Satellites coach Buzz Schoff confirmed to The Times his team is quarantined until Tuesday after "a few positive cases." They are hopeful to play Week 4’s scheduled game against Wheeler but Schoff said, “The safety of my players trumps any game.”
Kankakee Valley announced 28 hours before its newly scheduled kickoff with Lafayette Harrison that its game against South Bend Washington had been canceled.
Times No. 4 Michigan City has high hopes this season and is off to a 2-0 start. It lost three scheduled games last year. Said Wolves coach Phil Mason: “You try and do the things you can do. The truth of it is: not a lot. There’s not a lot you can do. They’re going to go to school. They’re going to be kids. They’re going to do what they do.
“I don’t want to get on the political side: get vaccinated. I don’t want to be that guy but what else can you say? We’re concerned. I don’t want to see it happen again. We lost three games last year. This is a really good football team that we want to see get contested. These guys want to play and we want to play good teams.”
It is believed the IHSAA is the only state association in the country to contest every state championship as scheduled during the 2020-21 year without limiting the number of participants from previous years, sports information director Jason Wille said.
But it didn’t come without COVID-19 issues. The state didn’t track the number of games canceled due to COVID-19 in the regular season, but it did for the postseason. Across Indiana there were 17 football teams, 16 volleyball teams, 11 girls basketball teams, five boys soccer, five unified flag football, three girls golf and one softball team that were unable to finish their seasons due to COVID-19, Wille said.
The Times tracked team stoppages in the Region and in addition to 71% of football teams losing a game, 32 of the 43 girls basketball teams and 25 of the 44 boys basketball teams confirmed to The Times they had a COVID-19 stoppage.
Each coach believes camaraderie is built in the offseason, and after limitations in 2020 each coach asked mentioned a sense of normalcy this year. Mason indicated Michigan City was able to open up the playbook more because of the critical learning period during summer sessions, which allowed them to install new wrinkles during in-season practices.
Valparaiso coach Bill Marshall has noticed a difference with his team.
“The big thing for us last year as all of our graduating seniors alluded to: not being able to go to team camp,” he said. “Being with us and spending that time together in and outside of football activities, we desperately missed out on last year but that’s something we got to experience this year and I think we’re stronger because of it.”
The Vikings are off to a 2-0 start this season and look to reach the semistate round for a fourth straight year. Like the majority of schools in the Region, Valpo returned to in-person classes which led to Marshall’s message to his team.
“We just tell our kids, ‘Make good choices,’” Marshall said. “I sent a message out … and I said, ‘Politely and respectfully ask your teachers if you can be put in a seat next to someone who shares your team or your camaraderie or is a varsity or JV athlete because, again, those are the individuals that have a common interest … that they know how important it is to stay healthy and do everything they can to not get contact traced.’”
Here’s how Michigan City senior QB Giovani Laurent is handling it: “Last year, I went to school for maybe two weeks and there were too many contact traces, so I went home. This year, I never was the type of kid to talk to everybody. Everybody knows me but I just keep my headphones in and go to class.”
COVID’s challenges are resurfacing. Schools are facing those challenges now with Crown Point having nearly 900 students and faculty quarantined, leading to a mask mandate. Lake Central had 650 people quarantined and an executive order allowed some to return.
As changes sweep across different school districts, the smiles that light up athletic fields provide some relief as protocols continue.
“As a coach, going through last year with COVID, you could tell that a lot of the protocols, a lot of the procedures really weighed heavy on the kids from a mental and emotional standpoint,” Marshall said.
“With how close our team is and has been, it’s very hard to do that and still provide a team-like chemistry and atmosphere. (Wednesday) night was our weekly night practice and you could feel almost like a buzz because it was their ability to do this in a way that they feel is normal.”
Football recap: A NFL comparison, brothers beat team they were ball boys for, and more
Week 2 in Indiana is mostly settled, as is Week 1 in Illinois. Get caught up on all the action across the Region and state line here!
“It meant a little more as a program and that’s what we told them. ‘This isn’t just for you guys. This for all of the alumni.’ Half our staff is alumni, too. This is important.”
Chris Mullen accounted for the Trojans' first five touchdowns, running for a pair and throwing for three more. He finished 17-for-25 passing for 254 yards.
"A lot of them were junior varsity kids last year. They're doing a nice job when the quarterback gets them the ball of doing something nice afterward."
Lake Central sophomore running Xavier Williams has made a memorable impressions this season.
Here's a look at how teams across the Region fared in Week 2, including an overtime win for LaPorte at Penn.
The Times staff is out in Northwest Indiana keeping an eye on the latest football scores. Check back here as games progress to see how your favorite team is doing.