At our press time, Freedom High was expected to open its 2020 football season on Sept. 11, hosting its New Tampa neighbor and archrival Wharton High, but the toughest opponent for both teams to combat that night likely wasn’t each other.

It was Covid-19.

And, that doesn’t just go for football. Avoiding the virus is arguably the biggest challenge facing teams across Hillsborough County (and the country), as high school athletes, their coaches and administrators try their best to remain socially distant and safe in what is certain to be the strangest prep sports season ever.

“It’s going to be very…what’s the word I’m looking for? Intensive,” says Wharton athletic director Eddie Henderson “It’s going to be a lot of work.”

The county is following all CDC guidelines for sports and also has issued its own 18-page guide, which covers everything from daily cleaning and sanitizing to quarantining and tracing those who become infected. The rules, which include the difficult-to-enforce ban on handshakes and high fives, seek to prevent a major outbreak of the virus.

Social distancing will be the key to keeping crowds at athletic events from spreading the virus.

One of the rules that will make football feel very different is that the bands and cheerleaders will not be permitted to travel to away games. That means that when the Wharton Social Distancers traveled to take on the Freedom Social Distancers, they had to leave behind some of their loudest and most ardent supporters, not to mention a group that is woven into the very fabric of the Friday night football experience.

The crowds will be smaller. A limited number of fans will be allowed into sporting events like football and volleyball this fall — players (and band members) are allowed to choose only four spectators, but they have to be registered on a list at least a day before each game, so they can be issued electronic tickets. Each player’s foursome will be a “spectator pod” and will be required to sit together.

Fans, who must wear masks in the stands, will find seats clearly marked off in groups of four, socially distant from other pods.

The biggest hurdle, however, will be keeping the athletes healthy. If an athlete tests positive, he/she and anyone in close contact with them will be quarantined for 14 days. That can wipe out any team’s roster in a hurry.

Football will be a huge challenge, due to the unavoidable closer quarters presented by bus transportation and the sheer number of players (often ranging anywhere from 50 to 80 or so) cramming into small locker rooms.

The football teams at Hillsborough and Jefferson high schools have already had infected players and, as a result, may not be able to play the first two weeks of the season.

“I’m holding my breath, and the reason is that, when we’re putting this many people together, you just don’t know,” Henderson says.

While football is the biggest concern, every sport will present its own set of issues. 

For example, cross country will have to stagger its starts to avoid large gatherings of runners from multiple schools. Volleyball players will be expected to avoid the traditional high-five after every point, and swim meets with multiple teams may be hard to find. In fact, Wharton’s usual “home” pool at the New Tampa YMCA is not permitting the Wildcats to host any meets there.

Provided that high school sports can make it all work under such unique and demanding circumstances, middle school sports will not begin until the second quarter, with track starting first on Oct. 12, followed by flag football and volleyball on Oct. 19.

“Everything is so uncertain,” Henderson says. “Are we gonna be able to push through or will there be a setback? I hope we can push through — I want to see the kids play. They have suffered enough the last six months with (the 2019-20 school year) getting cut short, and the makeshift way of doing school. I hope we push through.”

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