Football coaches are often creatures of habit.
But the coronavirus — and the havoc it continues to wreak on scheduling competitions throughout the condensed Fall II season — have forced coaches to alter their routines and put in extra hours to cram for last-minute matchups.
For St. Mary’s coach Sean Driscoll, it’s been a frustrating month. The former Winthrop head coach has drawn up a game plan for four different opponents (Bishop Fenwick, Arlington Catholic, Cardinal Spellman, and Cathedral) only to receive late notice that those schools were unable to play due to COVID protocols.
So instead of spending a full week of practice working on a specific game plan, Driscoll and the Spartans have scrambled to gather and study film on their new opponents. Aside from a March 20 matchup at Arlington Catholic in which the team received notice of postponement upon arrival, the Spartans (1-2) have found other teams in need of an opponent, and handled Millis, 32-12, for their first win of the season Saturday.
“There’s late nights in any profession, but in the game of football, at any level, there’s a lot of hours,” said Driscoll, who has been coaching for over 25 years.
“Football is a different sport. The planning is big, and usually you have everything locked and loaded by Wednesday. To have a change dropped on you in the middle of the week, it can get kind of frustrating, and it’s happened to a lot of teams.”
Driscoll’s old program and alma mater, Winthrop, has also been dealing with shifting opponents. The Vikings’ Week 1 matchup with Peabody was postponed as was their Week 3 matchup against Swampscott. But on Tuesday they were able to schedule Framingham (which had a game against Walpole postponed) to play on Thursday night in a rare matchup between a Division 1 and Division 6 school.
Winthrop (3-0) was able to score a 22-6 victory over the Flyers and can lock up a Northeastern Conference Small Division title with a win at Gloucester next week.
Third-year coach Jonathan Cadigan, who succeeded Driscoll at Winthrop, said the scheduling shifts have benefit his team to an extent.
“Since we started meeting on Zoom last summer, our goal was to be the most flexible team in the state,” said Cadigan, a 2001 Winthrop grad who became an assistant coach at his alma mater in 2003.
“One benefit we have is experience. We’re a senior-laden class, so they know the routine, they know our offense, and we don’t have to get too crazy with game planning because everyone knows what to do,” Cadigan said. “And we’re a Wing-T team, when everyone runs spread [offense] now, so when we show up I think it’s a little more difficult to prepare for us.”
A longtime physical education teacher at Winthrop High, Cadigan said adjusting the practice schedule has helped his student-athletes soak up mental reps. The Vikings usually practice right after school and break down film afterwards, but this year Cadigan is running a film session around 3:15, followed by on-field work to implement the concepts they discussed.
“You never want to go through a pandemic, but it’s forced us to kind of think outside the box,” said Cadigan.
“As a teacher, you lose the kids in a classroom after a while and after a long practice, watching film doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I’ve always valued making the most of our time and [the pandemic] has only increased the importance of making the most of it. Some of things we’re doing now, like Zoom meetings, I think we’ll stick with going forward.”
Sometimes the impromptu matchups teams schedule present insurmountable challenges. Driscoll and St. Mary’s did everything they could to compete at St. John’s Prep in Week 1, but couldn’t hang with the two-time Division 1 state champs.
Billerica had its game against Merrimack Valley Conference Small rival Dracut postponed this week, and shifted to face MVC Large leader Central Catholic. Indians coach Duane Sigsbury, who said he had already put in six hours of film study to prepare for Dracut, spent another six hours on the third-ranked Raiders to no avail, as Central roared to a 47-6 victory at Billerica on Saturday.
“It’s crazy. It’s definitely a grind, but I love it and I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” said Sigsbury. “But shifting gears from one team to the other, and only having 48 hours to prepare for a team like Central is tough. It is what it is. It’s still awesome to be able to do it for the kids and they’re just happy they get to play.”
With three more weeks left in the Fall II season, coaches are sure to see more curveballs as COVID cases rise in many towns. There is always time to evaluate a team’s performance in their most recent game and the game plans that wind up on the cutting room floor can be saved for next season, which is just five months away.
A handful of premier matchups and rivalry games in every league throughout the state have been tabled, but head coaches keep plugging away for the longevity of their program.
“You never know what it’s going to be week to week,” said Driscoll. “I didn’t ever think there would be a season where St. Mary’s didn’t play [Bishop] Fenwick. But it’s a different year and that’s where we’re at.”
“The good news, is that we’re playing football, and that’s the best news you can hear.”
▪ The confidence of Cambridge coach Roy Howard never wavered in Thursday’s Dual County League game against Wayland — even when the Falcons trailed 42-28 early in the fourth quarter.
“The message was: just hang in there,” Howard said. “[Wayland] couldn’t stop our offense, so the defense just had to make a couple of stops,”
Howard was right. The Falcons (2-1) reeled off 20 points in the final 12 minutes of action to steal a 48-42 victory. Senior quarterback Ashur Carraha had a hand in six touchdowns (5 passing, 1 rushing), including two fourth-quarter throws to Dante Christie (3 total touchdowns). Carraha spearheads an offense that has scored at least six touchdowns in each of the past two games.
“He has a motor that just keeps going and going. He’s very talented,” Howard said. “He has great legs, so he can run the ball . . . When he’s in trouble, he takes over the game.”
Cambridge’s offensive explosion ends as quickly as it began. The Falcons plan to conclude their season on Saturday against Weston. Four games feels like a flash for Howard and the team.
“It’s stunning,” he said. “But like I tell everybody, we’re happy to have a season for the senior class, because they put in so much work.”
▪ To the South, there are a handful of running backs piling up jaw-dropping stats. At the top is Bridgewater-Raynham’s Anthony Morrison, who has totaled 1,083 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in four games. The Williams College-bound senior is averaging 12.3 yards per carry for the 4-0 Trojans. Not far behind him is Durfee junior Jason Hall, who has run for 755 yards and 11 scores in four games for the 2-2 Hilltoppers. . . . Over in the South Coast Conference, Apponequet’s Kevin Hughes has totaled 507 yards and six touchdowns in two games. Hughes came into the season 808 rushing yards shy of Nate Michael’s school record of 3,341. With three games to play, Hughes is now just 301 yards shy of the nine-year-old record.
▪ Lincoln-Sudbury junior Nolan O’Brien broke the program record for punt return yards (with over 358) and touchdowns with the third punt return for a touchdown during a 42-14 win at Westford last Friday. The previous records were held by Brendan Mahoney (’86) and Todd Norley (’03).
Correspondents Ethan Fuller and Brendan Kurie also contributed.