For the first time since 2017, the Billerica football program practiced on its own field, its new turf surface, under the lights Thursday night.
The familiar voice of seventh-year coach Duane Sigsbury boomed through the mild October wind, as he alternated between exhorting his players to go hard in conditioning drills and reminding them to stay 6 feet apart and wear their masks properly.
It was not a typical practice, yet it was all seniors such as starting quarterback DJ Sidell could hope for given the restrictions in place during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re more than grateful to still be practicing and hopefully still have a season [football could be played during the Fall II period from Feb. 22 to April 25],” said Sidell. “Being under the lights is pretty cool, there’s definitely a lot of energy out here. If we didn’t have this, I’d be pretty much devastated.”
Billerica, which is running two 90-minute sessions per week, is one of the few programs practicing at all right now.
While the MIAA waived rule 40.1 to allow for out-of-season coaching, many leagues decided to prohibit formal practices for sports that aren’t in season. And towns with higher rates of positive COVID tests have completely shut down their football programs.
In a survey conducted by the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association on Sept. 30, only 14 percent of the 158 participating schools said they had access to their weight rooms. While 62 percent of coaches said they were allowed to contact their players, only 18 percent of those programs were working on skill development.
“There’s definitely a wide range and it’s creating rumblings of advantages and disadvantages,” said Milton coach Steve Dembowski, the association’s representative on the MIAA Football Committee.
“That was kind of my fear when [the MIAA] waived [rule 40.1], that it wouldn’t be equally applied. It’s a have and have not situation and we’ll see how that’s translated to the field.”
Yet even private schools with extensive resources are struggling to establish continuity in their practices.
At St. John’s Prep, the two-time defending Division 1 state champions are running 90-minute sessions four days a week per Catholic Conference rules. However, since Prep has a hybrid learning model in which the student body alternates between in-person and hybrid learning, coach Brian St. Pierre is restricted by alphabetic order when constructing cohorts of 10 or fewer players for skill development.
“Health and safety are going to come first for our players and staff,” said St. Pierre. “I was adamant about that up front. We’re following the word to the letter of the law based on all the state recommendations.”
Some days, St. Pierre only has one potential quarterback, but on Thursday afternoon, he was able to work with several candidates for the starting job, including Andover transfer Victor Harrington.
Harrington, an athletic 6-foot-2-inch junior, said he’s been working individually with sophomore wide receiver Joenel Aguero, a Lynn resident who burst onto the scene last season and already has earned an offer from Michigan.
With St. Pierre walking the quarterbacks through key fundamentals, such as how to throw a quick screen, Harrington is learning a lot, but he’s champing at the bit to get into full padded practices.
“You want to build chemistry with new receivers, so it’s hard,” said Harrington. “With social distancing it’s hard to really be a team. Everything is separate, but once that time comes, you have to be ready.”
The Independent School League (ISL) is dealing with different challenges. Since the structure of their academic calendars won’t allow for a “Fall II” season in the late spring, programs such as Governor’s Academy in Byfield are desperate to play at least one official game in November.
Jim O’Leary currently has his squad practicing Monday and Friday, with hopes to add Wednesday as another day for basic conditioning, passing drills, and technique training for linemen.
In a recent virtual meeting of ISL coaches, Belmont Hill coach Chris Butler outlined a plan to begin 7-on-7 competitions, but O’Leary isn’t giving up on scheduling an official game against a school that is also testing student-athletes regularly.
“Certainly [7-on-7] is a way to start competing in some way,” said O’Leary. “But our end goal is to play an actual football game. If we can play just one game, it would satisfy that itch for some of these kids. I don’t know if that’s possible, but we’re going to fight until the very end.”
Despite all the restrictions, enthusiasm certainly hasn’t waned. Prep has 94 players practicing at the varsity level and another 60 freshmen working out. Billerica has 114 kids signed up and those players are using the extra down time to prepare physically for a potential season, and sell cards with discounts to local businesses as part of a program fundraiser.
With several parents in the stands and a handful of headlights surrounding the field as community members watched Billerica’s Thursday night lights display, Sigsbury was all smiles.
“This is heaven right here,” said Sigsbury, who is also the varsity basketball coach at Austin Prep.
“Billerica kids love football, and you can see it’s important to the community. Hopefully everyone does their part to stay safe and we’re able to play [games] come February.”
▪ The MIAA Football Committee discussed a proposal presented by Steve Dembowski Wednesday, which would shift the statewide playoffs to change the significance of Thanksgiving games by requiring two bye weeks during a 12-week season (during Weeks 4-6 and Weeks 11-12) starting in the fall of 2021. The committee will survey member schools by December and hopes to have a proposal to present to the MIAA’s Tournament Management Committee by January.
▪ Acton-Boxboro is dropping “Colonials” as its mascot, joining a list of programs dropping their nicknames that includes Barnstable (Red Raiders), Hanover (Indians), Nashoba Regional (Chieftains), Walpole (Rebels), and Winchester (Sachems).
▪ The Lowell boys' cross-country team extended its win streak to 100 games with a 15-50 defeat of Andover last Wednesday, a streak that began on Sept. 15, 2010.
▪ Bridgewater-Raynham junior forward Shay Bollin is listed as the No. 19 recruit for the Class of 2022 in the Super 60 National Recruiting Rankings at ESPNW.
▪ The following athletes recently announced their college commitments:
Basketball — James McGowan, Westwood (Bowdoin); Kyla Cunningham, Bishop Feehan (St. Anselm)
Football — Justin Moran, BB&N (Hamilton); Kevin O’Connor, Milford (Bates); Matt Ragan, Lawrence Academy (Boston College)
Lacrosse — Jake Gilbert, Xaverian (Fairfield); Anthony Kulturides, Cohasset (Merrimack); Nick Pisano, Needham (Bryant); Tim Sullivan, Walpole (Curry)