FHS: Hester takes precautionary measures

Braly Stadium sits dormant awaiting the kickoff for the 2020 FHS season. Coach Hester and his coaching staff are taking all precautionary measures issued by the school and CDC. Players are practicing to prepare for a full season amidst the pandemic. AHSAA will be closely monitoring the pandemic throughout the season to produce a 2020 schedule.

Chase Glover, Managing Editors

Florence High School (FHS) football is preparing for a season that can potentially be canceled at any point and time. Throughout the summer, the AHSAA made the move to keep fall sports available for athletes which allows hope for a football season. Now, instead of beating other teams, they also have to beat the biggest rival: COVID-19.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the country leading to the stalling of all sports at that time. Many players saw their seasons come to a sudden end, leaving them with an uncertainty of what is to come. 

High school spring sports such as baseball, softball, and others were left with nothing. Senior players cannot attain another year of eligibility for high school unlike collegiate players who get a second chance at their senior year.

Florence athletics are taking the precautions necessary to accommodate the CDC and the health of their players. Head Coach Will Hester made it known that this will be the toughest season ever in his 22 year career.

“When you go to a game on Friday nights, you aren’t worried about who is sitting next to who on the bus,” Hester said. “You don’t worry about who is serving pregame meals, or whose locker is next to whose but now we do. If someone contracts the virus they are going to want to contract traces of where everyone was sitting or who they were around. We can’t have the starting center and the backup center next to each other on the bus because we could potentially lose both of them at the same time.”

Coaches and players alike are making practices, along with workouts, much different this upcoming season. The coaching staff has implemented changes to help socially distance players and to keep them actively healthy.

Senior leaders such as linebacker Carson Casteel, long snapper Kneeland Hibbett and defensive end Hollis Martin have all displayed their willingness to compete this season even in the midst of the pandemic.

These leaders attested to how well Hester and the rest of the coaching staff are using the CDC guidelines to keep players as safe as possible.

“The weight room and locker room is separated between the offensive and defensive groups,” Casteel said. “We have to wear masks in the weight room and locker room, we have social distancing periods in practice, and we even have to bring our own water bottles.”

The normalcy of watching film, practicing and lifting becomes a thing of the past due to the pandemic. 

“We usually can sit and fit about 40 people into the film room,” Casteel said. “Now we can only have 10 at a time. We all would go to the weight room but now we can only do one group of players at a time.”

Senior players will see a different side of football this season while competing on the field. As some players are worried about contracting the virus, a minimal amount of high profile recruits decided to forgo their senior year in high school to enroll early into the college they already have committed to play. 

Casteel, a Troy Trojan commit, mentions he would not give up his senior season to enroll early. Hibbett and Martin mention they might consider such a thing if they were not still feeling out the recruiting process.

“If I was committed, I would have done that [forgo his senior season],” Martin said. “I don’t want anything else bad to happen, I want to prevent that.”

Many athletes play their senior season for football and then finish high school early in Dec., with intentions to enroll into the college they have committed to early. The purpose of doing this action is to better associate with the team and create a rapport with the coaches along with their new teammates. This allows them to learn the playbook and their position that will help them rise above their competition.

“I am considering early enrollment,” Hibbett said. “I never considered skipping my senior year, absolutely not.”

The teams Florence High School will play on the field will ultimately show their strengths or weaknesses come game time. Their true showing of muscle will come if the AHSAA comes calling to cancel the football season, after the hard work and dedication the team has gone through.

College football lost two Power-5 conferences to postponements of their seasons, while high school sports have forged on to try and play sports this season. However, if the pandemic reaches an uncontrollable level once again, high school football could come to a halt once again. 

“It is hard to say,” Hester said. “I am hopeful [to play all season], the key is that schools are starting to re-open. We have to watch if there are spikes in cases and we are taking precautions to separate students [in school] so if there were to be an outbreak, we wouldn’t have to quarantine a mass amount of students. I am very hopeful but I am also a realist to understand that there is so much that we don’t even know yet.”

College athletics are taking even more precautions by testing players for the virus two to three times per week. However, high school athletes are not receiving the same treatment mostly due to the cost of the tests for each player. 

“When you think about it from a financial standpoint, we don’t have the resources that [college] programs do to test on a weekly basis,” Hester said. “We are a high school program, we are doing everything we can to make sure they have helmets and shoulder pads to play their season. It is 50-60 dollars for a slow test and 130 dollars a test for the rapid one, it would be financially irresponsible for us to test like that. We check their temperatures every day, and we let them know if they feel bad to not come to practice.”

Money is a big reason many high schools cannot afford to test all players throughout every week of the season, however players see it differently in why they would rather not see constant testing of athletes.

“Tests are being falsely reported,” Hibbett said. “I have friends that have not gone to take a test when they were supposed to and they got letters in the mail saying their test came back positive; it is very exaggerated.”

Hibbett, a known senior leader under Hester, mentions that the virus is in fact very real and very serious to him. He sees the testing could cause the problems for the team and program to continue a full season. 

After the stopping of spring sports, senior athletes that were in the middle of their recruitment journey potentially saw an ending that never came to fruition. Many athletes work extremely hard their senior year to be recruited by teams and when the season came to a halt, some players lost the chance of playing at the next level.

The pandemic can potentially cause that again for the local Florence High School. Hester and his leaders mention that there is a plethora of players that have a chance at Division-I scholarships if the season plays out.

If the season is cut short, players could see the same ending as spring athletes did; a lost chance of playing at the next level. This could be one of the toughest times for a senior recruit to get an offer from a Division-I program.

“Spring football really hurt [us],” Casteel said. “If we would have had spring football, we would already have five or guys with Division-I offers. Not having that really messed us up, so we are hoping to make the playoffs which will bring more scouts around.”

Hester and Co. are working relentlessly to keep players motivated through the midst of a football season. All three senior leaders have mentioned that Hester motivates them by telling them that they never will know the last day they will play high school football. 

Players could see their last day being a practice or a state championship, but it is all hanging in the air currently. This leaves Casteel and others to understand that it is not in their control and to play everyday like it is their last. 

“What Coach Hester and our offensive coordinator Dan Winfrey have highlighted for us is that you never know when your last day will be,” Hibbett said. “It really has us going 100%. He is telling us that we should practice like it is our last. The way we are practicing has us in the mindset of we never know when the last day will be, which has us ready to play.”

As players gear up for another season, the uncertainty that looms amongst football teams will be inevitable. Hester and his players look to lead the team back to another year of the playoffs to avenge the loss from Thompson in last year’s exit. 

Florence High School will continue practice until the opening of the season and will also practice the CDC guidelines consistently to keep all players safe. Hester and his staff are bringing health and safety to the forefront of the team mantra.