It’s been just over a year since high school sports returned to California.
Pushed by the Let Them Play CA team and two prominent Bay Area football coaches — Serra-San Mateo’s Patrick Walsh and De La Salle’s Justin Alumbaugh — Gov. Newsom allowed outdoor sports to start up again in mid-March.
For football teams at high schools around the region, it meant a mad dash to get their teams on the field practicing, working out and ready to start games — all in a four-week window. And once schools got as many games as they could play, it was already time to prepare for a return to a full season in the fall.
Now, with a year of hindsight, we wanted to know what coaches felt about how football in 2021 — both the spring and fall — went for them and their schools. Thirty-six coaches responded to our five-question survey.
LET THEM PLAY: Was it worth the trouble for two 2021 seasons?
While every school’s experience was different, here were the major takeaways across the survey:
Overwhelming support for return to play
Our first question asked coaches: “In hindsight, how important was it to get your team on the football field in the spring?” Answers were given on a 1-to-5 scale with increasing importance.
Twenty-six of the 36 responding coaches answered with a 5, and another five coaches answered with a 4. That’s 86.1% of coaches in total answering a 4 or a 5.
For so many coaches, seeing their Class of 2021 kids staring down a full senior year without any athletic opportunities at all was something they couldn’t stomach.
“Those kids lost so much of high school life besides football — they missed their junior prom and senior ball,” Campolindo coach Kevin Macy said of the seniors. “The schools were really not excited to have kids return for hybrid learning in the spring quarter of 2021. Our football season was the only thing our community could feel good about in over a year. The football season saved the school year.”
It surely wasn’t ideal to miss the fall for any Class of 2021 kids who were still looking for college football opportunities, but coaches felt the small window of spring games were valuable for any possible recruiting help, too.
“I feel like we owed it to seniors to get them some type of senior film,” Kennedy-Richmond coach Gregory Marshall, Jr. said. “College football didn’t stop just because we were shut down. By us starting so late tons of kids in California missed opportunities.”
And in general, coaches felt it was important for the mental and emotional well-being of their students, especially after 11 months of lockdown and distanced learning.
“We got our boys outside with their friends and teammates,” said retiring Mountain View coach Shelley Smith. “The social aspect was huge. [It] played a big role for their mental wellness.”
COVID’s impact once seasons began
Just getting back on the field at all had to feel like a success. But that didn’t mean that the pandemic was over — far from it.
Once teams began playing again in the spring, 55.6% of coaches (20-of-36) said they felt COVID had a major impact on their spring season and summer workouts. Only one coach said that COVID had no impact at all.
Many respondents felt the lack of access to the weight room was the biggest piece of impact in the spring and summer, and different policies across school districts affected how often teams could hold practices and workouts — let alone what could be done during those sessions.
“It became very apparent that football doesn’t work very well without proper weight training and preparation time,” said Alhambra coach Alan Hern, adding his team was “hanging on by a thread at the end” of five games.
Beyond the safety rules, several coaches said participation was significantly down in the spring, whether because of parental concerns, lack of interest or policies requiring students to only play a single sport.
The combination of the lack of numbers and lack of workout access seemed to shift the focus on what teams wanted to accomplish in the spring.
“We were more focused on trying to get through each week without having to shut down than we were trying to win games,” said Lincoln-San Jose coach Kevin Collins.
Cases decreased as vaccinations rose in California throughout the summer until the delta variant hit California in August. Cases climbed back over 10,000 a day, which caused disruptions for several schools in the Bay Area in the opening weekends of the football season.
But by September, cases leveled out and, for the most part, allowed football season to play on. Our survey results reflected that, as only nine coaches felt the virus’ impact was major in the fall — compared to 19 from the spring.
“The players and coaches took the protocols very seriously,” said Evergreen Valley coach Gabe Resendez. “We never lost a player or coach to COVID for a game.”
Injuries were more impactful, but similar in frequency
Playing a full fall slate just a couple months after a half-season in the spring worried many coaches about the volume of games and the toll that could cause on the body.
“There was some legitimate concern there,” Alumbaugh said.
But giving the Class of 2021 something for their senior year trumped all other concerns in the moment. Alumbaugh said De La Salle tried to manage injuries before they happened, especially for the juniors and sophomores.
“We tried to monitor how much they were playing,” Alumbaugh said. “We rotated more guys just to make sure that everybody got an opportunity to play in the spring to try and limit the contact that they had. Because we knew there was going to be a quick turnaround.”
The schools that went on a deep playoff run ended up near or at the 20-game mark for 2021, like De La Salle (19) and Wilcox (20). Both Alumbaugh and Wilcox coach Paul Rosa said they changed practice plans on the fly later in the season, trying to lessons the hitting done in practice.
“Most of the time, when you get to the playoffs, you kind of rev it up maybe a little bit,” Rosa said. “Where in this case, you would almost do the opposite, just because we didn’t want to get burned out.”
But in the end, the majority of respondents felt injuries were about the same in 2021 as they were in any normal football season, as 19-of-36 answered when asked if the added games made an impact on their injury status. Seven coaches said they had more, five said they had less and five were unsure.
At least a few coaches felt the quick rush to play during the spring — as schools began playing games less than a month after Gov. Newsom’s Feb. 19 announcement — had a bit to do with a few more injuries.
“The shortened spring 2021 had about the normal amount of injuries as [a] full season would have had. That is probably due to the rush to get the games in without a full offseason,” said Leland coach Kelly King, Jr. Fall 2021 was on par as any normal Fall.
Recovery time was also a major concern for many coaches, particularly in the transition from spring to fall. Several survey respondents who made note of the lack of recovery time to get the bodies healed up from the spring in time for the full fall slate.
The weather may have also harmed the season, as Craig Holden of Benicia quipped: “I thought the spring would be a warm season, those were the coldest 6 games that I can remember.”
But what seemed to make the bigger impact was that a major injury suffered in the spring almost assuredly kept kids out in the fall, too.
“Our program had one major injury in the spring of 2021. It was an ACL injury,” said Los Gatos coach Mark Krail. “Sadly, that player was unable to play in the fall as well.”
Concord’s Paul Reynaud said multiple players at his school missed games in the fall because of injuries that occurred in the spring, and Collins at Lincoln said his star running back Epoki Fakaosi tore his ACL in the second game in the spring. Fakaosi missed the rest of the spring and the fall football season, but recovered in time for a standout wrestling season, finishing second in the 195-pound weight class at the CCS championships in February.
The grind of the double season on coaches
In the eyes of Alumbaugh, one thing hasn’t been discussed enough: How much the two-season year of 2021 asked of coaches.
“We tried to give perspective — we’re elated that we were able to do it, and it’s something that we love to do,” Alumbaugh said. “But that’s a narrative that I don’t think has been talked about a ton and it should be, and not just in football. These are men and women that are volunteering their time and taking time away from their families.”
Our final question on the survey was open-ended, asking coaches: What is important to note about playing football in the spring and fall of 2021?
Several coaches responded to that prompt discussing coaches’ burnout, just like Alumbaugh did in his interview with the Bay Area News Group.
“Coaches burn out — physically and mentally,” Castro Valley coach Denny Molzen said. “We were basically nonstop from before spring to end of this fall. We had so much more responsibility because of restrictions/protocols/worrying about positive tests, etc.”
The time away during the pandemic certainly left many coaches feeling more grateful than ever to be able to be on the field with their fellow coaches and the students.
“It was just the joy of being in a somewhat normal situation once again with the team that made the season so enjoyable. And then we happen to win CCS, but all that stuff is just a bonus,” Walsh said. “I love it and I’m very competitive, but that’s not really, for me, what coaching is all about. What it’s about is bringing the team together and in the journey of it all, the road to it.”
Alumbaugh agrees, albeit with a caveat: “To a man from my coaches. Being on the field has probably never been so enjoyable. Just being out there when we’re out there and doing what we love. And being off the field, and doing all the things that go into it has never been more challenging and less enjoyable.”
That stress is part of trying to play football during a pandemic, and Alumbaugh recognizes it may be something coaches have to continue to consider in future seasons ahead. But even though it wasn’t asked directly in the survey, Alumbaugh firmly believes that every coach would agree they’d go through all the chaos again to make sure their kids got on the field.
At least one response, from Chris Saunders at Menlo-Atherton, aligned with that belief … albeit, with a caveat that every coach — and frankly, everyone — would agree with.
“Glad we did it, but let’s never do that again,” Saunders said.