When they first announced they weren’t having a season, I was upset, but it wasn’t as bad. Then two weeks ago when they announced they were talking about it and canceled it on us again, it really got me upset and broke me down. Now, I’m super excited.
It’s a very 2020 story: one started by the coronavirus pandemic, with miscommunication, social media influence, protests and threat of litigation in the middle and with no certain end.
That is how Friday Night Lights will make its return to Colorado this fall. And again this spring. Hopefully.
A two-week rollercoaster ride of emotions for prep football players across the state came to an end last week when Gov. Jared Polis’ office and the Colorado High School Activities Association got on the same page at last and agreed they believed the game could be played inside safe parameters.
And although two-thirds of the country will also be playing high school football, Colorado — no stranger to being an outlier in many things — will be unique in that it will have seasons in both the fall and the spring.
Schools were given a choice to pick the season that was best for them per the variance granted by Polis to CHSAA and no place will be a better place to observe than Aurora, where six schools (those in the Cherry Creek School District plus Regis Jesuit) have chosen to play in the fall (Season A on CHSAA’s pandemic-revised prep sports calendar) and the five in Aurora Public Schools landed in the spring (Season C).
How it got to this point is unlikely.
The wildfire spread of COVID-19 in March stopped the winter season just short of completion, wiped out all high school sports in the spring in Colorado and for a time, made even the notion of returning to traditional schooling seem impossible. Sports were classified by their risk factor for disease transmission and football — the one with the largest number of players who make jarring physical contact on every play and the one with by far the most attendance — got the “high risk” label from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).
Those that were deemed low or moderate risk such as boys golf, boys tennis, softball and cross country got the go-ahead to compete from CHSAA based on their built-in ability for social distancing and the safety steps they could implement.
Football seemed destined to not happen at all given the parameters issued by local health organizations and the myriad challenges the sport presents, but got some promise in early August when CHSAA moved it to the spring instead of canceling it. Some took it well and were encouraged that football would be played, while others started to push back.
That pushing is why fall football practice started Sept. 24.
Colorado High School Activities Association Commissioner Rhonda Blanford-Green spent the summer monitoring the pandemic and preaching patience, which sat well with some, but not well with others.
She has said that CHSAA constructed many scenarios for the fall — including one in which all of its normal fall offerings, football, volleyball, boys soccer, softball, cross country: field hockey, boys golf, boys tennis and gymnastics, would start as previously planned — but there a modified calendar would be needed.
The state’s wait-and-see approach to having football in the fall caused some definite consternation in the football community and prompted an exodus of players to surrounding states, which the Sentinel explored in a cover story in June. Those that waited optimistically had their hopes dashed Aug. 4 with CHSAA’s announcement that football and most of the other fall sports were moved back to the spring.
Many programs scaled back workouts and laid out plans for the sixth months of hibernation — some around Colorado going so far as to put total field repairs in motion with so much time to get ready — but others wouldn’t let it go for a variety of reasons.
With football getting started in several places nearby and with COVID-19 data looking better in the state, Blanford-Green sent out a Labor Day missive to schools saying CHSAA was exploring the possibility of resuming fall sports and “keeping the dialogue open.”
That got the hopes up of players, parents and coaches around the state — who organized rallies in several places, including Colorado Springs, and put on a total social media ‘blitz,’ spearheaded by an account called @LetCOPlay on Twitter — only to result in discouragement when CHSAA’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to make no changes to its original calendar.
“When they first announced they weren’t having a season, I was upset, but it wasn’t as bad,” said Cherokee Trail standout Sam Hart, who participated in one of the protests in Highlands Ranch. “Then two weeks ago when they announced they were talking about it and canceled it on us again, it really got me upset and broke me down. Now, I’m super excited.”
That decision was made with the belief that only 25 players would be allowed in a game (12.5 per team), which was certainly not possible for 11-man football. Polis’ COVID-19 Response Team clarified that 50 players per team would be permitted and that prompted the CHSAA board to vote again. It passed 12-3.
Polis’ approval required the ability for schools to have a choice to play in either the fall or the spring, thus two seasons were born. The whole process left coaches exhausted, but with the opportunity to play and a big choice to make.
Once the path was opened for football, CHSAA laid out the parameters of what both of its seasons would look like.
The pandemic certainly had an affect, as the season was shortened to six regular season games (from 10 in a typical season) plus at least one more guaranteed game, in the postseason for eight qualifiers or against another non-qualifier.
Teams must play four of the six games — giving cushion in case quarantine comes during the season — to be eligible for the postseason. Because of the late timetable, CHSAA itself took on the scheduling of the season, something schools normally do themselves.
The biggest revelation, however, was that each season would have its own state champion. Health parameters were outlined for schools as well that include no use of locker rooms, no pre-game coin toss and social distancing on the sidelines.
When all schools were accounted for, nearly 80% of the state opted to play in Season A (fall). In 5A — the state’s largest classification where the majority of Aurora programs reside — 32 out of the 42 programs (76.19%) chose Season A. The greatest number of teams that chose the spring came in 2A (31.58%) and 3A (30%).
Cherry Creek Schools ready, mostly, for football in the fall
Programs in the Cherry Creek School District were among the first to make their intentions known that they would opt for the fall.
Several CCSD schools — including defending state champion Cherry Creek, which features a slew of Division I commitments — held workouts all summer after the district permitted the use of facilities in June and some did work on their own outside.
“It’s great that the kids will have an opportunity to play,” CCSD Athletic Director Larry Bull told the Sentinel. “Each school and each district are in their own situations, and people need to be respectful and understanding and support everybody. It’s a very, very difficult time, but we are playing Season A.”
CHSAA’s realignment for fall based on the teams that chose to play didn’t see much deviation for local teams, as Cherokee Trail, Eaglecrest, Grandview, Overland and Smoky Hill — every one of them a qualifier for last season’s 5A state playoffs — join the Bruins and Arapahoe, another playoff team, in the Centennial League.
Regis Jesuit, the other Aurora program to pick Season A, ended up in a South Conference with familiar foes as well such in Chaparral, Doherty, Douglas County, Legend and Pine Creek.
The biggest difference in that alignment comes for Overland, which was set to move into one of the two divisions of the Metro 10 conference — which had been designed for program building in years past — before it ended up back in the powerhouse conference.
If they had football in the spring, I would have left early and just not able to play senior season, so I’m super thankful they moved it to this fall. I’m still going to be leaving for Ohio State in January, so I’m super fired up about that, too.
First-year head coach Kyle Reese — a member of the coaching staff at Cherry Creek last season — had looked forward to the chance to build with the Trailblazers, but now finds himself with just two weeks to prepare (the first fall practices begin Sept. 24, with the season opening Oct. 8) to face a gauntlet of a schedule.
It is particularly challenging given Reese operated under the impression that football would be in the spring per the original declaration, so he eased up on his team’s workouts.
“To be perfectly honest with you, we shifted gears and went into offseason mode after Aug. 15 based on the information we were given, and we were fine with that,” Reese said. “We were going to take advantage of the opportunity to get off to a great academic start, build more into relationships and dig into who our guys are and who we want to be.”
Fortunately, Reese felt like Overland made progress in the summer months, working with the required health mandates that included limited numbers, temperature checks, sanitizing equipment and doing a lot of work without a shared ball. His biggest concern is getting his players used to the physical nature of the game they haven’t experienced since last November when they lost to Smoky Hill in the first round of the 5A playoffs.
“As a coaching staff we were really satisfied with what we got done in the summer,” Reese said. “ I thought we had a chance to talk a lot of schematic stuff and we got an idea of how we want to practice and we were satisfied in that. From a base standpoint, we’re OK, we can play a football game.”
Eaglecrest coach Shawn Marsh put together a very detail-oriented summer program that helped his team grow physically with a variety of non-football drills that also helped them develop leadership.
Marsh felt his Raptors — who appeared in last season’s 5A quarterfinals before falling to Ralston Valley — showed great dedication and had put themselves “in a good spot” for the season before it was delayed. Now, Eaglecrest, which knocked rival Grandview out of last season’s playoffs, gets the chance to build on that momentum.
When the initial decision came out, Smoky Hill coach Tom Thenell — whose team is coming off back-to-back undefeated regular seasons — told the Sentinel he would have his team ready “when the bell rings.”
The reversal of fortune should also ensure that CCSD’s top talent is on the football field, which wasn’t a sure thing had football moved to the spring.
Hart — an Ohio State recruit — and highly-regarded Eaglecrest defensive back Seyi Oladipo came out on social media after CHSAA’s initial announcement and indicated they might graduate early, take advantage of the NCAA’s early signing day in December and depart of their college programs instead of waiting to play in the spring.
Now, they can play play their senior seasons and still leave for college early, which is what Hart plans to do.
“If they had football in the spring, I would have left early and just not able to play senior season, so I’m super thankful they moved it to this fall,” Hart said. “I’m still going to be leaving for Ohio State in January, so I’m super fired up about that, too.”
Aurora Public Schools picks spring with return to school in mind
The situation for Aurora Public Schools is much trickier and it led to the decision to play in the spring.
While Cherry Creek Schools began the year with a hybrid mix of remote and in-person learning — which has been put to the test with positive COVID-19 tests prompting quarantines at several schools — APS chose to go completely online for the first quarter.
Boys golf, boys tennis, cross country and softball have competed this fall under that format, but with the district rolling out its plan to return to in-person learning — which is scheduled to begin Oct. 20 for high school students — district leadership felt the addition of football at the same time posed greater risk.
So like nearby Denver Public Schools — which is on a similar path — APS chose the spring option.
“Since the revised Colorado High School Activities Association 2020-21 sports schedule was announced last month, our football teams and spirit squads had been planning and looking forward to the spring season,” Superintendent Rico Munn said in a statement sent to district parents. “We are confident that the work of our students and coaches will allow for a strong and competitive experience for everyone, including the opportunity to compete for a championship against many of our traditional rivals.”
“We understand that this may be disappointing news for some and welcome news for others,” Munn continued. “We have prioritized a return to as much in-person learning as possible as soon as possible. The late addition of these sports seems likely to compromise our in-person instructional plan under the current Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) guidance.”
The academic component proved to be the deciding factor after APS Athletic Director Casey Powell said the district had made preparations to play in the fall, contrary to a radio interview by CHSAA Board of Director member Ryan West with KOA’s Dave Logan that mistakenly said otherwise.
Powell told the Sentinel that the district would have participated in fall football if that was the only option, but given they had a choice, the academic situation dictated the spring.
Football coaches in APS greeted the news of spring football with mixed reactions — especially because they see the current window open and nearly 80% of the state’s programs taking part — and they know there is no guarantee there will be a season in teh spring. The volatility of the coronavirus makes planning for things months in advance dicey at best.
But they had no choice but to get behind the decision and began to make the preparations.
“We wanted to play in the fall, but we support the district’s decision,” Vista PEAK head coach John Sullivan said. “We are in a different situation in Aurora with what’s happening with COVID and academically than some of our surrounding schools to the south, so an educated decision was made and we’ll support it. We will prepare for the spring and be ready to go Feb. 25.”
Sullivan’s Vista PEAK team — which completed an undefeated regular season in 2019, only to suffer a disappointing exit in the opening round of the Class 4A state playoffs — believed it could win a state championship in the fall and now will have that chance in the spring. Only six 4A teams chose the spring, however, so how the Bison’s schedule and the postseason will look is yet to be determined.
APS has two veteran coaches in Sullivan and Brandon Alconcel at Rangeview, while the other three programs are helmed by new coaches in Aurora Central (DaVaughn Thornton Sr.), Gateway (Robb Wetta) and Hinkley (T.C. Newland).
Scholarships on the line
Ja’Derris Carr’s playing future is secure, but the Vista PEAK senior star still wants the best for his teammates.
One of the biggest concerns for those playing football in the spring — especially with others in the same state that play in the fall — is that scholarships will be filled at college programs before they even get to play.
The inability to put their skills on film for college coaches to see may have serious ramifications for some in terms of their future. Carr — who had his pick of schools and committed to Princeton on Aug. 1 — went to social media to stick up for a potentially double-digit group of seniors on his team that might be affected.
“I’m good where I’m at, my recruiting is done, but I’m really trying to advocate for my teammates,” Carr said. “They are waiting for their chance, waiting for that offer. This puts a whole bunch of complications into place and I don’t think they will have the same opportunities as the other kids that play in the fall.”
Not every junior had a season like Carr, who neared the 2,000-yard mark of total offense (1,445 rushing, 510 receiving) and scored 27 touchdowns while showing speed that made him stand out in every game. He committed just a few weeks after teammate Braylen Nelson — a 6-foot-5, 295-pound three-star offensive lineman — committed to Fresno State.
Sullivan agrees that the lack of film for his players might have some affect, but with the uncertainty that reigns in college programs as well due to the pandemic — where senior players may get an extra year, which affects scholarship numbers — will also be in play.
To help with that, Sullivan has put special emphasis on reaching out to the college coaches he’s gotten to know over the years and advocated for his players, which he feels could be as effective as new game film.
Field hockey goes with the spring
In addition to the variance granted for football, Polis’ COVID-19 Response Team also approved one for field hockey to be played, ostensibly to bring back another female sport and not one that takes place indoors such as volleyball, a very popular sport in Colorado.
Some field hockey teams wanted to play in the fall as usual, but because of the late approval and how fast the season was supposed to begin, state programs as a whole — there are just 15 statewide, including three in Aurora — decided that spring would be the best choice.
Multiple meetings last week concluded that the sport was best served playing together, so field hockey practice will now begin on March 1, 2021.
Spencer Wagner, who has guided Regis Jesuit to back-to-back state championship game appearances and won a state title in 2018, feels they picked the right path.
“Football is a very different scenario; it makes a lot of sense to say for those in the fall that can play, do it, but field hockey is on the other end of the spectrum,” he said. “We need to stay unified and we need to be concerned with the health of the league and the game.”
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports