‘It hurts,’ Coach Zach Line
By Teddy Rydquist
Leader Staff Writer
Beginning fall practice on Monday, August 10, albeit without shoulder pads and contact drills, the Oxford Wildcats football program spent their first four days of the 2020 season in an unexpected holding pattern, waiting to hear from the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) regarding the status of the campaign.
On Friday, August 14, over 600 high schools around the state, including Oxford, received their answer, and it was not the one coaches, and student-athletes were hoping for.
The governing body’s Representative Council, made up of 19 athletic directors, principals, and superintendents, announced football will not be played this fall and move to Spring 2021, citing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).
“At the end of the day, we did everything we could to find a path forward for football this fall,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said.
“But while continuing to connect with the Governor’s office, state health department officials, our member schools’ personnel and the Council, there is just too much uncertainty and too many unknowns to play football this fall.
“No one is willing to take the risk of COVID being passed on because of a high-risk sport. Decisions have to be made on our other sports, as well, but none of those carry the same close, consistent, and face-to-face contact as football.
“While this is tremendously disappointing, we will do everything possible to provide the best possible experience in the spring while adding football into the calendar.”
Initially, on July 17, the MHSAA stated their hopes to have football during its normal season but left the door open to move it to the spring.
“It’s tough, I’m hurting. I’m hurting for the players,” first-year Wildcat head coach Zach Line said.
“They’ve met every guideline, and every policy in place to ensure safety, and they’ve done so without question. So, it hurts, because I’ve seen how hard these guys have worked and how much effort they’ve put in.
“We were on this rise, it seemed like we were going to play, they’ve met every guideline, and at the last second, they had the rug pulled out from under them. You could see it in the guys’ faces. That’s where I stand, I’m hurting for the guys.”
Oxford begins their summer practices at 9 a.m., meaning the team completed their August 14 session before the postponement was announced shortly after 4 p.m.
Once the news broke, Line organized a team meeting.
“We had great energy in the morning, guys were fired up, things were on the rise, we were looking like a team ready to play,” he shared.
“When we got the news later that day, we scheduled a meeting the following morning (August 15) at 9 a.m. and I said what I could. I wanted those guys to know it’s OK to feel sad or angry, their feelings are justified.
“Moving forward, I just wanted them to know they have a choice. They’re probably the only class that will have to experience a canceled spring and a postponed fall ever again.
“They have a choice, coming out of this, are they going to be resilient and learn a life lesson out of this about how to persevere, or are they going to play the victim? I think we have a good group of guys, and a tight-knit group, that will keep each other in line and motivated and focused.”
This ruling came exactly two weeks ahead of the Wildcats’ scheduled season-opener, a home tilt with the Macomb Area Conference’s Romeo Bulldogs. Only four of Oxford’s nine games were scheduled to be played on the Blue Turf this fall, however, this could change in the spring.
If the fall season would have gone off as planned, it is possible this would have changed in the fall, too.
“We had already begun to discuss being creative with our fall schedule,” Line offered.
“The schedule posted in the beginning, we were already looking at changing that up, maybe it was a home-and-away with certain schools close to us, because some schools weren’t in and that’s OK because we can be creative.
“I’m glad we have an athletic director (Jordan Ackerman) who’s willing to work with us, work with other schools in the area, and figure out ways to make things happen because, at the end of the day, it’s all about the kids.
“To me, the excuse of, ‘Friday night lights wouldn’t have been the same, or wouldn’t have been the same vibe,’ isn’t acceptable to me. That’s not at all what this is about, these guys want to compete. Some of these guys need film for college, some of these guys need structure for their lives, being around their teammates.
“These guys come to practice with a smile on their face and they don’t want to go home. I hear from parents all the time, they love football, it’s fun for them being there. You take that away, what replaces that?
“I’m trying to find something outside of football that’s as positive for life lessons and structure, because that’s what they need right now. They have so much free time right now, this is the one thing in their lives where they know they have two, two-and-a-half hours every day to learn the playbook, be on time, be held accountable.”
One of the obvious concerns raised by moving football to the spring is the overlap with baseball, lacrosse, and track and field, sports that many football student-athletes also participate in.
This is still a fluid situation, but one of the options being discussed, according to Line, is having four sports seasons within the academic year, “Fall,” which would be all normal fall sports except football, “Winter,” consisting of basketball, hockey, and wrestling like usual, and two spring seasons, “Spring 1” and “Spring 2.”
Playing football during the “Spring 1” season, and possibly pushing the start of baseball, lacrosse, and track and field back, would allow student-athletes to participate in both of their athletic activities.
“The worst thing we can do is make these kids decide between two sports,” the coach stated.
“Unfortunately, with a sport like baseball, where you have school baseball and club baseball, it’s going to be hard for those kids to decide, ‘I have this team where I always play with my friends, but I also have this club team that helps with recruiting and all these other things, supposed to be more beneficial that way.
“It’s just a hard decision for kids to make, and it’s a decision I wish they didn’t have to make.”
One Wildcat who plays both a fall and spring sport is senior John Valvo. A starter at cornerback, who recorded 24 tackles and an interception in 2019, he plays for Shawn Regan’s lacrosse team and runs track, too.
While he does not currently have any offers, Valvo is hoping to play football at the collegiate level. He has taken visits to Ball State in Muncie, Indiana, and Western Michigan, as well as spoken with coaches from Albion and Valparaiso University, which is also in Indiana.
Many of the state’s top prospects in the 2021 class, including Clarkston Wolves offensive tackle Garrett Dellinger, an All-Oakland Activities Association (OAA) Red Division selection a year ago, are expected to enroll early at their chosen colleges and skip this spring senior campaign.
For players who do not yet know their next stop, like Valvo, this delay throws an additional wrench in the process.
“It would have been nice to have it in the fall,” Valvo said, utilizing a glass half-full approach.
“But you also have to look at the bright side, and I know I’m going to be bigger, stronger, faster by then and hopefully that will help me out.”
Seeing time at both secondary spots last season, Valvo is expected to focus on playing cornerback this spring. Shawn Regan, his lacrosse coach, doubles as the football program’s quarterbacks and defensive backs coach, meaning these two are well-acquainted with one another.
In the meantime, the senior is focusing on honing his craft but also taking care of business in the classroom, a point emphasized daily by both Line and the man who served as his head coach for his first three prep seasons, Bud Rowley.
“I’m trying to keep my grades up, want to get high grades, better for recruiting,” Valvo shared.
“I’ve also been in the weight room trying to put on weight, because I’m already undersized, and work on my speed, too.”
Regarding other MHSAA fall sports, volleyball and boys’ soccer are recognized as “moderate-risk” for the spread of COVID-19, while boys’ tennis, cross country, girls’ golf, and girls’ swimming and diving have been designated as “low-risk.”
Cross country, golf and tennis were eligible to begin practice on Wednesday, August 12 and have been cleared to begin their competitive seasons as scheduled. Soccer, swimming and diving, and volleyball began practice the same day, but have not received the necessary clearance to begin their competitive schedules.
Guidelines regarding the competition seasons for these three will be released on Wednesday, August 19.