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By Zach Cavanagh
In his 14 years as a football coach at Dana Hills High, head coach Phil Skinner has never spent this much time away from the Dolphins’ turf.
It had been five full months since Dana Hills, the Capistrano Unified School District and most of society shut down due to the coronavirus in mid-March.
Spring football, summer camp and training camp had all been wiped away. Even the previously scheduled return to the field for socially distanced conditioning workouts on July 6 had been canceled days before it was to start.
But, finally, during what had originally been scheduled as the first game week of a season that eventually was delayed until January, Skinner and the Dana Hills football team took to the field for conditioning workouts with freshmen on Tuesday, Aug. 18 and with varsity players on Wednesday, Aug. 19.
“I’ve been there for some years, and that’s one of the most familiar places in the world for me,” Skinner said, “and even I felt a little foreign. So that felt good to get back out here. It’s been a long time coming.”
With no equipment, small groups limited to nine players and one coach, constant 6-foot spacing and face masks—not the kind on helmets worn in competition—it’s not close to a total football practice yet, but it was a welcome substitute for weeks of Zoom meetings and isolation.
“As unnormal as the practice was, it was fantastic to be able to see their faces,” Skinner said. “They put their cleats on, and they worked really hard. We did a lot of conditioning, a lot of drills. After five months on the couch, it was a little bit of a shock to their system. Not like a hell week, but the first day of conditioning is always a tough one. They were feeling it.”
The Dolphins were limited to plyometric exercises with drills for changing of direction, starting and stopping and keeping their heads fixed to one spot while running. Linemen were able to do some work out of a stance or do some squats, but no pushing or contact of any kind was allowed.
Skinner compared where they are now and days left on the schedule until full practices are slated to begin on Dec. 14 and the season on Jan. 8 to where the team would normally be at the start of spring practice. At this point, any time on the field is good time on the field.
“They’re having a coach (to) coach them up,” Skinner said. “They’re being pushed, they’re being challenged. They’re being asked to do something that’s not easy to do, and that all translates. They haven’t had anyone barking at them like that in a positive way in few months.”
Something that could’ve been a challenge was adapting to the new COVID-19 protocols that will need to be followed before and after every practice.
Groups of nine players and one coach arrive at their assigned time wearing a mask and keeping the mandated 6-foot distance. Each player and coach are asked a series of questions about COVID-19 symptoms and any potential exposures. Following a temperature check to the forehead and hand sanitization, the group goes on the field for their workout, and 15 minutes later, the next group arrives and goes through the same process.
On the way out, the groups are escorted straight off the field and all the way off campus to be picked up or to go home.
“It was real procedural, but I was proud of the way they took it seriously,” Skinner said. “The kids had a desire to do it right and get to the next level.”
Skinner joked that his football practices went much smoother than the first days of distance learning classes and the related technology had gone, both for his own students and his kids’ first days at elementary school.
Whether it’s schoolwork or football practice, the Dana Hills football has taken its first steps in the new normal of the coronavirus era.
Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a multiple California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email at email@example.com.