'It's so different than what we're used to'

Summer football workouts return in Chatham County

Posted 7/15/20

BEAR CREEK — Sherman Howze has worked in football for close to 30 years. But Chatham Central’s head coach admittedly felt like a rookie last week.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” …

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'It's so different than what we're used to'

Summer football workouts return in Chatham County

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Posted

Update: on Friday, July 17, Chatham County Schools suspended summer workouts at Northwood, Jordan-Matthews and Chatham Central indefinitely.

BEAR CREEK — Sherman Howze has worked in football for close to 30 years. But Chatham Central’s head coach admittedly felt like a rookie last week.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Howze said, standing on the edge of the school’s practice field wearing a visor cap, sunglasses and a camouflage facemask.

It was last Wednesday morning, around 10 a.m. and already 90 degrees, and the Bears were in the middle of their third day of socially distanced workouts: no balls, no pads and no contact.

In front of Howze, nine players ran through agility drills under the instruction of an assistant coach. They were spread out among a 6-by-6 grid of small orange cones, each one 6 feet apart from the next, in individual workout “boxes.” A line of water bottles and masks, also spaced out, lined a nearby fence.

“Yes sir!” Howze called out to the group after a few minutes. “Y’all look like model citizens!”

He was learning on the fly, sure, but took solace in the fact he wasn’t the only one.

Similar scenes played out at Northwood and Jordan-Matthews as the three high schools that fall under the Chatham County Schools system — and the only three schools in the county with football teams — resumed workouts on July 6.

The NCHSAA announced last month that schools — which had been in a “dead period” since mid-March — could resume workouts on June 15, under strict guidelines to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

After two days of conversations and meetings among CCS administration, athletic directors and coaches, though, the system decided to delay workouts for 3A Northwood, 2A Jordan-Matthews and 1A Chatham Central until three weeks after that initial date. It also initially limited the workouts to fall sports.

The reasoning: more time to prepare.

That much was apparent on Chatham Central’s campus, as athletic director Bob Pegram handled comfortably the pre-workout screening questions and temperature checks at a pop-up tent in the gravel parking lot.

“Safety is priority No. 1, 2, 3 and 4,” Pegram said.

The Bears have held two football workouts a day, Monday through Thursday: linemen from 8 to 9 a.m., and offensive/defensive skill position players from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m.

Howze said he’s working with a roster of 35 to 40 total players and saw most of them during the first week. Since most of those players work full-time jobs, he’s happy to accommodate them for whatever time slots fits their schedule. (NCHSAA summer workouts, regardless of COVID-19, have long been voluntary for athletes.)

Over at Northwood, head coach Cullen Homolka said attendance’s been “awesome.” Under the NCHSAA’s Phase One guidelines, 25 total people are allowed at outdoor workouts. Homolka capped player attendance at 22 (to account for him and his assistants) and ran two hour-long sessions each morning.

All of those have been at or near capacity, so last week Homolka saw about 44 players a day and 90 different players in all from Monday to Friday. Considering the limitations and logistics of it all, he was flattered so many of his kids showed up — just for an hour of grueling conditioning in the heat.

“Everybody’s pushing each other, trying to be better,” Homolka said. “Everybody has a purpose. Seeing that is awesome. You don’t realize how much you missed it until you sit there and see it come back after a four-month break.”

Sam Spencer, the head coach at Jordan-Matthews, said he’s seen about 34 players attend at least one workout. The Jets are practicing later at night — 6 to 7 p.m. for juniors and seniors, 7 to 8 p.m. for freshmen and sophomores — three times a week, although they canceled Tuesday because of rain.

“You know, it’s so different than what we’re used to and what the kids are used to,” Spencer said. “But it’s just fun to be around your guys. These are our kids.”

There’s another factor to the CCS restart, too.

According to Nick Stevens of HighSchoolOT, 83 local education agencies (public school districts and individual charter/parochial schools) have resumed workouts, and 71 have not, as of June 9. But those LEAs tend to be smaller and more rural, and more total schools (224) have held off on workouts than started them (182).

Tyler Oldham, a senior wide reciever for Chatham Central, answers questions during a pre-workout screening. He's hoping his 2019 junior season isn't his last time officially on the field for a game.
Tyler Oldham, a senior wide reciever for Chatham Central, answers questions during a pre-workout screening. He's hoping his 2019 junior season isn't …

Among the 10 largest districts in the state, only one has resumed workouts. The other nine, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and nearby Wake County and Durham County Schools, remain on hold until at least July 20. That’s put Chatham County’s three public schools on a bit of pedestal in the area.

“It’s a cool feeling,” said Tyler Oldham, a senior receiver at Chatham Central. “It’s kind of like all eyes are on us. We don’t want to mess up. We don’t want to ruin anything. We want to set a standard for everybody else to follow, so we’re trying to do everything right.”

Trey Clay, a junior cornerback, agreed with his teammate. Although his calves were sore from an intense backpedaling drill, he’d missed football. A lot. And last week’s practices were a taste of what he hopes will ultimately happen: games in the fall

“Right now, I just want to get back and play,” Clay said. “That’s all I want to do.”

Reporter Chapel Fowler can be reached at cfowler@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @chapelfowler.

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