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‘They did the right thing’: Youth coaches, Carroll County officials ‘joyful’ over return of rec tackle football

Jay Twardowski said his heart felt full when four of his Westminster Wildcats youth football players reached out to him Wednesday evening.

The communication wasn’t about playbooks, or equipment, or a scouting report on an upcoming opponent. But Twardowski said he could almost hear the jubilation in the players’ voices, even in reading their text messages, when they told their coach tackle football was returning.

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“I don’t know if they’ve got Snapchat for Carroll County [Recreation and Parks], or what the deal was, but they were sending me [screenshots] of the release before I even saw it,” Twardowski said. “It speaks to their excitement.”

County government announced in a Wednesday night news release that youth tackle football, basketball, and wrestling will be permitted to return to competition, effective 5 p.m. Friday. That’s in line with Maryland moving into Stage 3 of Gov. Larry Hogan’s coronavirus recovery plan.

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Carroll’s departments of health and recreation and parks announced Aug. 6 that competition in those three youth sports would be prohibited because of concerns relating to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Players, coaches and parents from rec organizations rallied in Westminster recently, pushing for sports to resume under normal conditions. The Carroll County commissioners received 72 hand-written letters from young athletes. And some parents called into a recent the virtual commissioners meeting to voice their disagreement with the decision to not allow the three sports in their usual form.

Twardowski said he was pleased to see Jeff Degitz, director of the county’s department of recreation and parks, move to act prior to Thursday morning’s commissioners meeting.

“They did the right thing,” the coach said. “Granted, Anne Arundel County announced it first, three hours earlier. But hey, we followed suit thank goodness.”

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Twardowski, a Westminster Wildcats coaching veteran of more than 17 years, said his team of 13-year-olds has been practicing since June. Even when the county suggested flag football as an alternate for tackle football, Twardowski’s bunch ― and several others within the Carroll County Youth Football and Cheer League ― was keen on wearing pads and using “skills and drills” to say sharp.

The county organizations that participate in the CCYFCL are North Carroll, Westminster, Winfield, and Sykesville.

“Everybody is excited to be back,” said Winfield Football & Cheer President Kelly Duncan. “That’s what they signed up to do for this season. I guess it was kind of a relief, because we kept going back and forth with the county and the commissioners and there were a lot of groups pushing back ... it was a relief to have an answer. And especially that it was the answer that we wanted.”

Duncan, who has been a Winfield football board member for the past four years, took over at president last December. Duncan said a few people chose not to play when tackle football was taken away, but have since expressed a desire to return.

Twardowski said he didn’t have any of his Westminster players leave despite the tackle hiatus.

“We still stuck with some of the tackle principles, which we were allowed to do. We kept teaching tackle football in practice,” the coach said. “I literally only practiced with flags one time. Not that I was allowing the kids to stay in contact, but we stuck with those drills. We never took our pads off.”

Gamber-Smallwood program director Gary Reed said the Mustangs switched to flag football and 7-on-7 when the first rulings came down, and they were ready to abide by whatever decisions were made. The Mountain Valley Youth Football League in July postponed its fall season until next spring, Reed, said leaving Gamber without a routine.

(The MVYFL includes organizations from Carroll, Frederick, and Washington counties.)

But the Mustangs have plans to compete against several of the county’s other organizations to keep travel down. Reed said “it was joyful” when his football program heard about Wednesday’s county ruling.

“We want to keep the kids exercised and socialized, and that has been the most important thing,” Reed said. “We’re thrilled to death, and the parents can’t wait to get back at it. The kids are excited too.”

Degitz talked during the commissioners meeting Thursday morning about making decisions in the early stages of the pandemic as the right thing to do based on health metrics. Those numbers are at a different level now, Degitz said, which indicate improvement.

“Things have moved in the right direction,” he said. “And believe me, nothing made me happier than to put that press release out [Wednesday] and to remove these restrictions from these sports to allow the kids to participate fully.”

Carroll County Recreation and Parks will also be lifting the 30-mile travel limit as of Friday at 5 p.m., but is continuing to encourage restraint with regard to traveling for leagues and tournaments.

Ed Singer, county health officer, said he would prefer not to see large travel tournaments and encouraged people to consider whether they need to quarantine after visiting an area with a high rate of cases. Singer said there have been 90 cases, three hospitalizations, and zero deaths in the 0-17 age group in Carroll County, but voiced concern over young people spreading the disease to more vulnerable age groups.

County Commissioner President Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, cautioned residents to continue following the best practices in health and social distancing.

“This pandemic is not, by any means, over,” he said. “We’re moving in the right direction. Who wants to go the other way?”

Twardowski said he saw a change in demeanor with his players over the last month, when flag football looked to be their only avenue for playing this fall. The coach said he wondered during practice if some of the Wildcats felt they needed to put forth full effort since they weren’t allowed to tackle like they had been taught.

But it looks as if a season will be put together ― Twardowski said he’s sure CCYFCL officials are in “scramble mode” trying to create a schedule and ensure teams it’s OK to return if they had any prior doubts.

“We’re going to start as soon as possible,” said Twardowski, who pointed to Sept. 12 as the previous planned start date for flag football. “Once we can probably get weigh-ins done, certify our rosters now at this point, I would think by the middle of September we should be ready to go. If we miss next weekend ... I would imagine by that following Saturday, I would hope anyway, that we’re off and playing.”

Carroll County Times reporter Mary Grace Keller contributed to this article.

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