The Soldotna High School football team has won 12 of the last 14 state championships in the small- and then medium-schools divisions using a punishing ground game and physical defense.
But head coach Galen Brantley Jr., who has overseen 11 of those state titles, repeatedly told players in a summer workout Wednesday at Justin Maile Field how great of a job they were doing not touching each other. In fact, Brantley Jr. loved that the players were not even getting close to each other.
Welcome to summer football workouts in the age of COVID-19.
Brantley Jr. and the Stars were the first program to have their plan for summer workouts accepted by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. The Stars started workouts June 11 and both the Kenai Central and Nikiski football teams have begun workouts since then.
Dave Jones, assistant superintendent at KPBSD, and Kevin Lyon, director of planning and operations, have been working with sports programs to make sure mitigation plans for practice meet approval. Jones said other sports programs also are working toward approval of summer workouts.
Sports teams can only win approval for activities at KPBSD outdoor facilities at this time.
Brantley Jr. said putting his mitigation plan together took about two weeks. Then he went back and forth with Jones and Lyon several times before getting approval. Brantley Jr. thanked the two for their diligence in making the practice plan better.
“The district administration wants the same thing we do,” Brantley Jr. said. “One, for the kids to be safe. Two, for them to be active. Following all those guidelines, we were lucky enough to get their blessing.”
Jones said summer workouts can only begin in communities with low enough positive tests for the new coronavirus.
The district is using guidance from the Alaska Smart Start 2020 plan issued by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development to determine which communities can begin summer activities.
Smart Start has three risk levels — high risk for widespread community transmission, medium risk for some community transmission and low risk for no community transmission.
Smart Start’s three risk levels are also used by the Alaska School Activities Association, the governing body for prep sports in Alaska, for return-to-activities protocols in the summer.
Jones said state officials have said each district decides how those risk levels apply to communities. Right now when it comes to summer activities, Jones said eastern Kenai Peninsula is at low risk, central peninsula is at medium risk and southern peninsula is at high risk.
Jones provided a spreadsheet showing why. Through June 13, Seward had four positive tests and one in the last 14 days for low risk. Central peninsula communities had 35 positives and 17 in the last 14 days for medium risk. Southern peninsula communities had 70 positives and 54 in the last 14 days for high risk.
When ASAA protocols are applied, that means southern peninsula communities can have no KPBSD summer activities because they are high risk.
Central peninsula communities are limited to individual skill development and workouts with strict social distancing in place and no sharing of equipment.
Seward could share equipment with intermittent cleaning, and physical distancing should occur as much as possible between nonhousehold members.
Jones said Smart Start 2020 also will be used for how schools will operate in a few months. He said he sits on a committee of 20 district employees determining how risk levels will be applied and what those risk levels mean for schools and their activities.
While specifics are still being formed, Jones said Smart Start makes it clear that the lower the number of positive tests, the more a school year looks like normal.
“The lower the numbers are, the more likely we are to be back in school,” he said.
Jumping through hoops
With the central peninsula at medium risk, Brantley Jr. had to come up with a practice script that would take into account documents from the district, state, ASAA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I’ve been collecting mitigation plans for high school and college programs around the country to see who has the best ideas,” Brantley Jr. said. “It’s almost like trading cards.”
As the state has opened up, many of the mandates Gov. Mike Dunleavy had in place have become guidelines. Jones said governmental entities like the school district must still follow the guidelines as if they are mandates in order to avoid liability.
“If we don’t follow the guidelines and someone gets hurt or sick, invariably we’ll get sued,” Jones said. “That’s why we need to look at this and need to have a plan to make sure everybody is complying.”
The workouts take place in two time periods — freshmen and sophomores from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m., juniors and seniors from 8 to 9 a.m. KPBSD limits outdoor activities to 50 people and Brantley Jr. said more than 50 sometimes showed up for workouts during a normal summer.
“We didn’t want to turn away kids because we reached the 50-person limit,” Brantley Jr. said. “Every kid who wants to train can do it.”
KPBSD also says there must be 20 minutes between each session to limit exposure between each group, so Brantley Jr. went for 30 minutes.
Players can’t enter Justin Maile Field until they get a temperature check, answer five screening questions, prove they have signed a waiver and have name and contact information on file for contact tracing purposes. Cones are set up to make sure players waiting in line observe social distancing.
Players bring their own water bottles and must wear long sleeves to limit the travel of sweat.
Once inside the complex, cones are set up on the field, again to assure social distancing. The 17 freshmen and sophomores who showed up for a Wednesday morning workout split into groups of two.
Brantley Jr. ran his group through sprint mechanics, while assistant coach Eric Pomerleau did strength and mobility drills using heavy rubber balls.
There was no sharing of equipment and each player had to disinfect equipment after he was done using it. Brantley Jr. said getting all that equipment from the weight room to the field took three hours because no students are allowed in the building. It also strained the tires on the snowmachine trailer to the max.
Brantley Jr. said coaches also disinfect equipment before practice.
One group at a time, players then did a sequence of bear crawl, backpedal and sprint for half a field each.
“That’s punishment,” Brantley Jr. said of the lung-burning sequence. “Kids are showing up each morning to do things like that just because they’re happy to be doing something again.”
The workout ended with players stretching at their cones.
Brantley Jr. and Pomerleau wore masks at all times.
“We’re wearing masks as coaches to set a good example for the kids,” Brantley Jr. said.
Players did not wear masks while exercising, but wore them when entering and exiting the facility.
Better than nothing
The prevailing feeling at the workout can be summed up by Logan Katzenberger, a sophomore who played on the C-team last season:
“I’m pretty excited. It’s been pretty boring staying at home,” and, “It felt like a gym class.”
Player and coaches wish they could be doing normal football activities, but in the time of coronavirus, they’re happy to at least have something.
“We’re excited to be doing something,” Brantley Jr. said. “It’s not what we want to be doing, but it’s certainly a lot more than we’ve been doing.”
Brantley Jr. is hoping to get back in the weight room by early July.
“That’s been kind of the hallmark of the program,” Brantley Jr. said. “We’ve had success because of the simple fact that we get in the weight room and bust our tails and make the players bigger, faster and stronger.”
Sophomore Joseph Whittom said he has been trying to do some running and body weight exercises on his own, but the workouts just were not the same without his friends to push him. He’s happy to be around friends again, even in the altered manner.
“It’s hard sometimes when we all do something hard together and we can’t get together and high-five,” Whittom said.
Brantley Jr. said he’s happy with the way his players have adjusted.
“We want to be as good at it as we possibly can,” he said. “We don’t want to give them any reasons to shut us down. All it takes is one Facebook post of two kids standing next to each other and we could be almost completely shut down.”
None of the KPBSD coaches are paid for operating the summer programs. Jones said it’s nice summer programs are happening despite the challenges.
“If the kids are dedicated and the coaches are dedicated, we appreciate both of those,” Jones said. “In a normal summer they’d be going to camps and other activities, that’s just an unfortunate side effect of this virus.
“Hopefully people in the community understand how they respond to the virus then is connected to what the community can all do or not do, especially high school activities.”
Anybody who has watched Brantley Jr.’s team plunge into the line time after time for 3 or 4 yards, just waiting for a big breakthrough, probably can guess what tack Brantley Jr. is taking about possibly getting his team on the field this season.
He said this situation is similar to early in the 2019 season, when smoke from the Swan Lake Fire was constantly threatening to cancel games.
“All I can do is prepare, not knowing if there is a season or not,” the coach said. “The kids love football and they’re happy to do that.
“They’re showing up, but I can’t make the promise there will be a season.”
Brantley Jr. said even if no season materializes, the summer sessions are valuable. First, there are lessons about how to act in the time of the new coronavirus.
“Let’s be honest, we don’t know how long this thing is going to last,” Brantley Jr. said. “This could be a skill set they have to carry on longer than we all personally want to in order to stay safe.”
Brantley Jr. also said the players are getting physically fit, meaning they will be in better shape if they should have to fight off the virus.
The coach also has been noting plans colleges have to play their seasons, including limiting the number of opponents played or eliminating nonconference games. Brantley Jr. will not be picky.