LITTLE ROCK — The state’s leader gave some high school athletes across Arkansas hope Friday.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that football teams can begin practicing with helmets Monday, which is the first date for fall practice on the Arkansas Activities Association’s 2020-21 calendar.
Teams will be allowed to wear helmets only Monday and Tuesday, then can use shoulder pads along with helmets beginning Wednesday, according to the AAA.
Volleyball teams also got the approval to practice Monday, AAA Executive Director Lance Taylor said. Along with football, volleyball is considered a contact sport by the state under Phase One.
Hutchinson has asked the AAA to submit a plan to the Arkansas Department of Health on what the organization will do for the 2020 season as far as practices and games.
The governor expressed to the football players to not only be ready for practice, but to also wear their face coverings to help protect against the coronavirus. As of Friday afternoon, there have been 42,511 cases in Arkansas, with 507 hospitalizations and 453 deaths.
“My message for the football players on Monday is to grab your helmet for practice and then after practice, grab a mask,” Hutchinson said. “Because our responsibility for safety extends beyond the practice field.”
The AAA later sent a letter to coaches Friday afternoon detailing the association’s guidelines for safety and practice. Locker rooms can be used but must be sanitized after each use. Masks must be worn by players when they’re not actively participating and social distancing guidelines of at least 6 feet are still in place when possible.
What Arkansas prep coaches of fall sports are saying after Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s announcement on Friday that non-contact practices for football and volleyball can begin Monday, Aug. 3:
• Tina Moore, Fountain Lake volleyball coach
“It’s a refreshing speech just from the standpoint of we can get on the court next week and maybe do a little bit more than what we’ve done, so I’m excited about that. But we still probably have a long way to go, but we’re good.”
• Tommy Gilleran, Lake Hamilton football coach
“At least we’re moving forward. I’m glad we have some type of direction. Other states have come out and made guidelines and kind of done stuff, and I wish we would have done that. I know the governor was being slow, but he should have gone ahead and made these guidelines and then adjusted on based on numbers.”
• Matt Kinsinger, Cutter Morning Star football coach
“I think it’s positive. It’s a step in the right direction. I think it’s still going to be … each step is going to be a small step. I’m hoping the AAA comes out with little more guidance on what we can do. So we can wear helmets, I assume that that means … because contact wasn’t involved in the conversation today then we’re just going to wear helmets and continue to do as usual as we have been, no contact drills. But stuff like how do they want to handle — do we have to sanitize helmets? Are we allowed to let them back in the locker room to keep their helmets in their locker? Just whatever just to make sure we’re doing our part, and of course, wearing masks anytime you’re not really getting after it.”
• Deana Frankin, Hot Springs volleyball coach
“We’re optimistic. It’s still kind of a crapshoot, I think. There’s a lot that’s going to have to happen, I think before it actually comes into play. But we’ve been doing a lot of individual work with our kids and you know spacing them out, keeping on pretty much 12 feet apart and masked. We’ve been taking kind of extra precaution, trying to be as safe as we can for our kids, for us, for our families, for everybody involved. And we’re excited to hopefully get to do a little something else and have a season.”
• Jody Grant, Bentonville football coach
“When I hear no contact, I usually think of contact as blocking and tackling. If we’re not practicing in full pads, then we’re not doing that anyway. I think this is a move that will help us to get acclimated, and this is a move from somebody who hopes to have football this season. That part of the message is really good.
“I see it as a way to practice football and minimizing contact and not having kids touching each other. I’m sure the AAA will come up with some other recommendations down the road.”
• Jessica Phelan, Fayetteville volleyball coach
“I think the governor’s announcement gives hope for athletes, for coaches and players. We’re not out of the wood just yet, and we still need to take responsibility as far as social distancing in order to keep the kids as safe as possible. I think the girls are looking forward to games and playing the sport they love, and now since there is hope for that, it will keep them motivated.”
• Chris Wood, Springdale Har-Ber football coach
“This is one of those things where you just wanted to take the next step. Our governor and the AAA are allowing us the opportunity to do that. Now it’s our responsibility to take it in a very safe way, and we’re going to do that because for two months that’s what we’ve been doing across the state. When you’re in there every day working those kids out, they didn’t have a ton of clarity on what the year was going to look like. And now when they roll in here Monday, they know what’s ahead of them.”
• Natalie Thornberry, Fort Smith Southside volleyball coach
“It was really neat to find out and relay this news to our players. Everybody probably had the worst-case scenario at the forefront of their minds. I know we were trying to prepare for anything and that was difficult. We are very excited they get the chance to continue.”
• Chris Young, Greenwood football coach
“Any news is good news and we got some great news (Friday). Our players have been working out and practicing safely since June. It’s going to be like Christmas to them on Monday when they get to put that helmet on.”
• Brandon Craig, Siloam Springs football coach
“We are very excited to put on the helmets and understand there are still guidelines we need to follow to make sure we keep our kids safe. It just gives everyone a good feeling to know that we’re moving in the right direction.”
• Joellen Wright, Siloam Springs volleyball coach
“This announcement gave our kids hope for something ‘normal’ out of 2020. They will get to make more memories with their teammates. We know there will be guidelines, and we are willing to follow them. Bottom line is they will be allowing us to have a season, and for that, we will be grateful. We hope to bring that into our play.”
• Lee Larkan, Greenland football coach
“I hope they’ll have some input from coaches. We are adaptable and we’ll go the extra mile to give our kids a chance to play. They don’t get this year back.”
— Compiled by The Sentinel-Record, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Siloam Springs Herald Leader
Taylor was at the governor’s news conference and had a message for the state’s coaches.
“We have to help them,” Taylor said. “We’ve been challenged. We have to get our numbers down. I know you’re doing a great job at the school social distancing. I’ve been to practice. I’ve seen it. With your help, we’ll have fall sports. I want to thank the governor and the department of health and the department of education.”
An advisory group led by Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe will meet beginning Monday to help assist the health department on football, as well as volleyball and cheerleading.
For eight-time state championship coach Kevin Kelley, he’s excited to have some form of football normalcy come Monday at Pulaski Academy.
“I’m happy for our coaches, but I’m even more happier for our players,” said Kelley, who also is the athletic director at the school. “Our kids can at least see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
White Hall football coach and athletic director Bobby Bolding was pleased with the governor’s announcement. However, he understands that the start of the 2020 season is not guaranteed for the 193 11-man football teams in Arkansas yet.
“I’m not a doctor. I’m a football coach,” Bolding said. “I’m not on the governor’s task force either. If they want to talk to me about down-blocking for eight hours, I’ll do that. But we’re going to keep following the guidelines. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.”
Nashville football coach Mike Volarvich expressed cautious optimism about Friday’s news.
“Obviously, it’s good that we get to practice Monday,” Volarvich said. “There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered. Our quarterbacks were not able to hand the ball off all summer, things of that nature.”
The Scrappers are scheduled to face Pleasant Grove (Texarkana, Texas) on Aug. 28, but that game is up in the air because of Arkansas’ uncertainty of being able to start on time. Pleasant Grove is a Class 4A school in Texas which will have its teams split either starting the season on time or being delayed — Class 4A down to 1A teams can start their seasons on time the week of Aug. 24-29 in the state while Classes 5A and 6A won’t kick off their seasons until at least Sept. 24.
Volarvich is entering his sixth season at Nashville and led the Scrappers to a Class 4A state championship in 2015. He said that even with this year’s situation with COVID-19, getting ready for the season is similar to previous seasons.
“For a football coach, you never know if you feel like you’re ready,” Volarvich said. “We’ll continue to go with the governor and the regulations that the AAA provides us.”
Six states — California, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia and Washington — have moved football to the spring because of COVID-19 concerns. Washington, D.C. has also switched football to the spring.
With Arkansas’ announcement Friday, 27 states have said they plan on starting football on time. However, 17 states have delayed their football seasons to a later time this fall, and six have said they will not play in the fall.
The Arkansas Activities Association halted all athletic activities, including competition and practices, with a dead period in March. Spring sports seasons in baseball, softball, soccer and track and field were officially called off April 8 by the AAA.
Hutchinson announced May 21 that schools could resume in-person workouts as part of the state’s Phase One for athletic activities. But contact sports such as football and volleyball were limited in their activities.
The dead period forced the cancellation of spring football practice, which is typically used by most programs in the state to install their offensive and defensive schemes before the summer. While in-person workouts resumed, 7-on-7 events and team camps throughout the state did not take place because of football being in Phase One.
Conway volleyball coach Laura Crow, who is a member of the governor’s high school sports advisory group, said she hopes athletes in all sports can play in the 2020-21 school year.
“I can’t tell you how much it hurt to see the seniors in the spring not be able to play,” Crow said. “To have their hopes up and not be able to play, that was sad. I hope that doesn’t happen to our players this fall.”
Kelley said while being able to work with his players over the past two months in person has been beneficial, it doesn’t compare to actual football work that the Bruins will at least get to do next week.
“At first, we were glad to be able to work out,” Kelley said. “But then you realize you’re only doing the same thing. It drove me crazy. We were dying to move forward.
“But everybody is in the same boat.”
Schools throughout the state are set to open the week of Aug. 24.
The first day of the high school football season is scheduled for Aug. 27, with a pair of state champions, Pulaski Academy (Class 5A) and Joe T. Robinson (Class 4A) meeting at PA’s Joe B. Hatcher Stadium in Little Rock. That game has also caught the attention of the world’s top sports network.
Kelley said ESPN has contacted him about possibly airing the game, if it is played. Pulaski Academy’s 2017 game against Bossier City (La.) Parkway and its 2009 game at Little Rock Christian were both aired on ESPNU.
With COVID-19 affecting the live sports television schedule, Kelley said that if Arkansas high school teams can get the go-ahead to start on time, he’ll be glad to showcase the Bruins on national television again.
“It would be good for Little Rock,” Kelley said. “It would be good to have ESPN bring attention to our state.”
Bolding, a three-time state championship coach at Stuttgart (2002) and Pine Bluff (2015, 2016), said football teams across the state are almost like a test dummy to see if sports could be pulled off in the Natural State this fall. The veteran coach said it’s up to the players and coaches if they are to play football in 2020.
“We have to adapt,” Bolding said. “We will adapt and move forward.”