NEWLAND — After enduring a year like no other in 2020, high school prep sports are back in action with sports that include basketball, volleyball, cross country and swimming during the late fall/early winter.

The largest revenue-producing high school sport, football, was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and is scheduled to kick off near the end of February. Beginning a football season during some of the coldest and potentially weather-influenced periods of the year may pose a challenge to the Avery High School football team this season, as it is one of just a handful of schools which will have to contend with the possibility of extreme cold, snow and other conditions during its preseason practice period.

Avery Vikings head football coach Mac Bryan discussed the team’s preparations, including unique hurdles that his and other teams have had to overcome to this point.

“We just went through the longest preseason practice in the history of mankind. We started back in early June and practiced up through November. That’s a long preseason,” Bryan said.

“The problem is, did it really get us ready? We couldn’t put pads on, we finally got helmets on the last two or three weeks we were out there, so until that time we didn’t even have helmets on,” he continued. “It was almost like we had a classroom on the field, because you really couldn’t get the physicality of it at all, and that really is a detriment to both sides of the line of scrimmage.”

Bryan noted how the action of live practice and contact plays a pivotal role in a team getting ready for game play and situations once the lights of Friday night illuminate MacDonald Stadium and other locations statewide.

“Even though we don’t go live in practice very much at all, there’s still that banging and that grabbing and hand placements and bumping going on. We weren’t able to do that, and blocking a hand shield or a sled isn’t quite the same thing,” Bryan explained. “We’re going into practice in February where we have a lineman or two that has never had a shoulder pad on in a varsity situation. We’ve got receivers who are dynamic and very good out there in shorts catching balls. But put those shoulder pads on and someone’s going to get hit. We’ve got some question marks and got some places where we’re not quite as good as we want to be, but we feel we’ve made some progress.”

The on-again, off-again nature of school with the pandemic causing changes to in-person learning has trickled down from a competition perspective to affect areas outside of logged-in practice time on the playing field or court. Work put in during the off-season in the weight room, as one example, has been a challenge.

“One of our problems is having a consistent weight program. Since last March, it has been pretty much nonexistent,” Bryan noted. “If they have the resources to do so, the players are able to lift some at home, but some of them do while others don’t. We’ve been lifting while school has been in session, but the thing is the consistency of it is not great because you lose a day or two due to remote learning or you lose a week. We’ve just hit Christmas break, plus the downtime from last March to June wasn’t beneficial at all.”

Old Man Winter’s effect on prep football season

Fortunately for the football program, Covid thus far has been less of a factor than in other programs, causing interruptions in season play. Whether that trend will continue during the gridiron season, according to Bryan, remains to be seen.

“I think the chances of that (direct Covid influence) may escalate with official practice. Again, we’d love our player participation numbers to be up at 55 or 60 or 65 players, but that won’t be a possibility. Maybe that will be a plus for us during the winter season because of Covid,” Bryan said. “We won’t have as many players. It won’t be a plus on the field, but it may be a plus in that regard. We’re looking at maybe 35 or 40 kids being all we’ll have.”

The first official practice for high school football practice in North Carolina is scheduled to take place on February 8, with the first week of regular-season play for the Vikings occurring on Friday, Feb. 26, at MacDonald Stadium when the team hosts Asheville Christian Academy. The period between first practice and first game will be unlike any other, as dicey weather could play a major factor in how the team preps for the season.

“Not counting Sundays, we’ll have 16 opportunities to practice before we can play. We need every day we can get… Everyone has to be adaptable this year. The pros have had to adapt and we’ll have to be more adaptable than we’ve ever been. Not only are we going to be fighting a battle in keeping safe from COVID, but we’re also going to be fighting the weather,” Bryan explained. “We’re one of only a few programs in the state that are going to be fighting that. If you drive 30 miles down the road to McDowell, they don’t have to worry about the weather like we will. Once every two weeks maybe, but we’ll be fighting it every day. There are going to be days out of those 16 preseason days where we won’t be able to get outside to practice unless we get really lucky. February weather usually isn’t very kind to us. If you live from Wilkes County east, you really don’t have to worry a lot about it, and the odds aren’t high of getting a major snowstorm in those areas.”

As witnessed at other levels of play, high school football’s adaptability may be tested as never before, and Bryan believes there will need to be a level of fluidity to this unprecedented season.

“I think you have to be adaptable, and I don’t think anything would be off the table. The thing is, I’m not worried so much about the game days, because our first home game is February 26. Once you get into March, the weather will be more like October,” Bryan said. “The problem is in that February practice window where it could be brutal. If we have to miss a day or two, we’ll do what we have to do. Now, we have to determine what we do if school is canceled on a given day. Can the football program practice if there is no school held on campus?”

The multi-sport effect

Students playing multiple sports is commonplace among 1A-sized high school sports programs. Usually, football played in the fall has faced minimal scheduling conflicts due to student-athletes playing multiple sports. However, with the change of seasons to the late winter/early spring, a number of Bryan’s football players are currently on the hardwood playing for the Vikings basketball team, including all of his wide receivers, a running back, starting quarterback and most of his defensive secondary.

Although the coach doesn’t condemn athletes playing multiple sports, he recognizes the potential effect it could have on his team as February transpires.

“3A and 4A schools can deal with this, but 1A schools will not be able to deal with a lot of players playing basketball when the football season begins. If they practice after school, I’m basically going to practice with half my team,” Bryan explained. “At the 4A level, you have people to plug in so you can make practice work. There’s issues we have where, with our limited numbers, we just won’t be able to make a full team in practice work. It won’t be an issue in the fall when we’re back to our usual season, but it will be an issue with this season in February. It’s going to be very tough to crowd everything into the windows they’ve (the NCHSAA) done. I still think that we should have tried to play games in the fall like the other states around us did. I know some teams had some problems and cancelations here and there, but that’s some problems you have to deal with. They were able to get it done. With our athletic situation in general, what’s going to happen if we have an after-Christmas spike? We’re fighting this every day.”

A look ahead to Avery’s fall 2021 schedule and realignment’s impact

ACHS will open its season with a scrimmage in Marion against McDowell and former Avery head coach Darrell Brewer on February 20. Unlike most seasons, Avery will not benefit from a 7-on-7 summer passing league and must maximize every opportunity to improve.

“With Darrell being down at McDowell, we’ll be doing more things together moving forward, from 7-on-7s to scrimmaging and things like that. He’s also going to be on our schedule next fall,” Bryan noted. “I’m not sure whether we should be playing a 4A school or not, but Darrell is a good friend and next fall’s schedule will look totally different. We aren’t able to sign contracts for those schedule agreements yet, but it appears through discussion and gentleman’s agreement that we’ll have 10 games in 11 weeks next fall, which will leave us with West Wilkes, an open date, then North Wilkes, McDowell, and our conference games.”

With NCHSAA realignment set to take effect in August, Avery is tentatively scheduled as of state realignment first draft to be part of an eight-school conference comprised of four 1A schools: Avery, Mitchell, Mountain Heritage (dropping from 2A) and Draughn, and four 2A schools: Madison, Owen, Patton and West Caldwell, with Polk County leaving the conference.

The potential of an evenly split conference appeals to Bryan and, he believes, to other coaches in other high school sports within the conference.

“I feel real good about what they did. I like having an eight-team conference with having seven of our games already set, and I think we’re at a point where we can probably compete with most people in the conference,” Bryan added. “It beats the heck out of trying to find five or six games to schedule. It also helps other sports scheduling as well.”

The college recruiter’s challengeAn area not highly publicized that Bryan mentioned as having felt a significant impact from the current pandemic has been the recruitment process, especially for smaller colleges who face limitations when it comes to visiting and, ultimately, signing their next blue-chip recruit to their program.

Thanks to the efforts of Bryan, outgoing assistant T.C. Guyer, and the remainder of the coaching staff, colleges of all sizes have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the talented student-athletes that ACHS has to offer, but the process isn’t without unique difficulties in this cycle.

“People want to look at the Alabamas, Notre Dames, Clemsons and Ohio States of the world, and their recruiting hasn’t changed, but everybody else’s has,” Bryan said. “Those schools know the five-star recruits that they’re going after are the best two or three guys in the state. But these Division 1-AA or Division 2 schools that can’t have any contact and can’t get off campus and are still waiting on what the NCAA is going to do with scholarships, if they hold back on the extra year of eligibility, how many kids will a school like Western Carolina be able to sign this year? The seniors this year coming out have been caught between a rock and a hard place. There are a lot more kids that aren’t able to play for an Alabama than those who are able, so it’s quite a challenge in the recruiting side of things, because things aren’t working the same.”

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