By Charmain Z. Brackett

It’s the fourth quarter with seconds left on the clock and the home team behind by only two points. All the team needs is 20 more yards to be in field goal range. The kicker anxiously waits on the sidelines, jumping and trying to warm up his muscles in hopes of a chance to be the hero. The quarterback heads to the line of scrimmage and surveys the players on the defense. They know what’s coming. He barks out signals, but it’s not the play they talked about in the huddle. The center snaps the ball. The quarterback fades back to pass, but there’s no receiver in sight. He scrambles, mindful of the clock and the linebacker bearing down on him. There’s nowhere for him to go, and he’s tackled behind the line of scrimmage, losing yards on the play. 

There’s still time on the clock, and he rallies the offense without a huddle. Once again, he calls out to his teammates. At the snap, he fades back, hoping to find a fleet-footed wide receiver. Again, no one open. He risks it and runs straight ahead, sprinting past the defense all the way to the endzone, scoring the winning touchdown. 

Just like the quarterback, area high school athletes have had to improvise and adjust to the multiple challenges thrown their way. There have been setbacks such as the spring season being abruptly halted, but things are looking up as the fall season is making its comeback with a few changes.  

“It’s different, but I’m used to adjusting,” said Miles Heslen, a Lakeside High School senior who missed out on half of his spring lacrosse season but was glad to be back in uniform for football in September. “Things have changed week by week.” 

On both sides of the Savannah River, high school officials have scrambled to enact protocols to help coaches get their players field-ready safely. In Georgia and South Carolina, the startup went through different phases. Early practices of sports such as football and volleyball didn’t allow participants to have equipment. Football practices were contactless and the number of players who could gather was limited.  In South Carolina, there could only be one coach for nine players, said De’Angelo Bryant, Silver Bluff High School’s head football coach and assistant athletic director. 

Athletes trained in shifts. The number of athletes in a weight room at one time was capped, forcing coaches to use the school’s gymnasium as an extension of the weight room to enable social distancing. The equipment has undergone stringent disinfection protocols; players need to have their own water bottles, and when games finally were underway several weeks after their usual start dates, crowds were limited in the stands. In sports such as girls’ softball, umpires aren’t allowed to touch the softball.  

Jackson Eller, a wrestler and senior at Evans High School, didn’t have guidance over the summer for his fall wrestling season, so he took it upon himself to keep lifting weights to maintain good physical condition. Wrestling presents its unique challenges. “The issue is that you’re face-to-face the whole time,” he said.  

Since the summer, changes in guidelines have come from the state officials regularly, according to Kevin Hunt, a football coach and head baseball coach at Lincoln County High School. “Changes have come at least weekly” sometimes more often, said Hunt.   

For Bryant, the hardest part of it all has not been the many changes, the disinfecting equipment, the daily health screenings or not being able to practice without touching a football.  

“The biggest thing for us was time,” he said. 

With smaller groups, they could only allot so much time before another group had to switch out and the process started over. During a typical summer schedule, athletes would spend two to four hours in practice, but that couldn’t happen this year, he said. The adjustments have been difficult at times for not only the coaches, but the athletes and their families. Despite that, coaches said morale remains high, and they have seen good things come from the situation.  

“It has affected kids to a degree, but kids are resilient. Our kids are just excited about being able to play this fall,” he said. Bryant concurred. While it has been difficult working around constraints, he thinks his team is stronger because of it. 

“A lot of positives came out of this. I like working in the small groups,” he said. “It’s a lot different working in small groups, but we’re getting to know them on a personal level.” 

Having personal connections and being able to talk with someone is an important key for teens in developing resiliency and dealing with the stress 2020 has brought, according to Dr. Gregory Smith, medical director for the Aiken Barnwell Mental Health Center.  

“These kids are tech-savvy and communicating all the time. We assume they are connected, but the paradox is older kids and teens need more support,” he said, pointing to incidents of teenage social media influencers who have millions of followers, but few real friends, and end up taking their own lives.   

Area teens might have connections on social media, but they need real interpersonal relationships with people who care about them, he said. They also need adults who can see the bigger picture. 

“Teenagers think they know everything, but they don’t have the knowledge of perspective. Adults know that bad things happen, but they will end. We will go on. When a kid is 15, 16, 17, one year is a 15th of their life. They don’t have a long-term perspective. They tend to catastrophize everything. How can you be 15 and plan for 2021?” 

Some coaches are already planning for 2021. 

While there’s no way of knowing if this year’s safety procedures will need to be followed next fall, Bryant said he may implement some of the strategies he’s adopted into next year’s football season including working with smaller groups of athletes. 

“We probably wouldn’t do the groups of nine; that stretches us as coaches, but smaller groups then progress to larger groups. I like that it gives coaches great relationships with athletes.” 

The Recruitment Outlook

Jackson Eller spent most of his summer wondering if he would have the opportunity to wrestle during his senior year at Evans High School. The usual summer opportunities of clinics and tournaments were scarce this year, which left Eller to do a lot of the training on his own. 

“I’ve been going to the gym. I need to be in the best shape I can,” said Eller, who won the 6A state wrestling title his sophomore year and was state runner-up his junior year. While he’d like to have another state championship under his belt this year, Eller doesn’t need that to wow college recruiters. He has already given a verbal commitment to Lander University in Greenwood, S.C. 

Eller started thinking about scholarships early in high school, sharpening his athletic skills and hitting the books. Starting the process early is advice that all high school students should follow, according to De’Angelo Bryant, head football coach and assistant athletic director at Silver Bluff High School. 

“This year is a prime example of why you don’t wait until your senior year,” he said. “You need coaches looking at you early.” 

Not all players get field or court time during their freshman and sophomore years though, so it is important to look for other ways to get in front of recruiters. Playing on teams and in leagues outside of school can be beneficial. Bryant suggests reaching out to coaches and putting together a highlight video to show what the athlete can do. He also said to pay close attention to grades this year and make sure the academics are in order. There are challenges for college coaches this year as well, he said. They are used to meeting with high school coaches in the spring and eyeballing athletes they want to watch for. 

Bryant said not to worry too much. 

“There are walk-on opportunities,” he said.