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School-sanctioned practices bring sense of normalcy and fun for Anne Arundel public high school athletes

Chesapeake football players practice on Tuesday, the second day of Anne Arundel County Public Schools-sanctioned practices.
Chesapeake football players practice on Tuesday, the second day of Anne Arundel County Public Schools-sanctioned practices.

Annapolis senior quarterback Deshawn Austin carried a mental checklist as he headed to his school’s campus on Tuesday. His entire team’s roster had been split into two, with freshmen working with coaches one day, the upperclassmen on the other.

On the list: get work done, have fun, “get hype with the boys."

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“Everything I expected came to reality," Austin said.

Fourteen Anne Arundel public schools began school-sanctioned practices for all fall sports Monday, which will continue over the next four weeks through Nov. 14, after which spring sports will do the same, and then winter. All teams practice twice a week for no more than two hours each, in groups limited to no more than 50 athletes. All wear masks as often as possible, except when athletes are physically working out, and are spaced out across the fields and courts.

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From Austin’s perspective, the training sessions are like summer workouts, to begin preparation for competition that’s supposed to begin for fall sports on March 15 and run through May 8.

Work, fun and hype all came together for the Panthers football team, thanks to coach Nick Good-Malloy’s scheme. At the start of Tuesday’s practice, Good-Malloy handed out blue and maroon jerseys.

“Nobody really knew what they were for. They were basically for offense and defense, but no one was 100% sure,” Austin said. “By the end of practice, we had did blue versus maroon.”

The blue-versus-maroon ruse disguised itself perfectly in typical drills for a football practice, though pads and helmets are forbidden. Austin believed the routes-on-air phase of the session was over when his coach called the offensive linemen over.

“He said, ‘The linemen are going to decide who wins this,’ and I said, ‘Oh my goodness gracious,’” Austin said. “I thought the linemen were going to have a block-off or something like that. And that’s when he said the linemen were going to have to catch the ball in the end zone.”

From each color’s sidelines, the other players went crazy as lineman after lineman attempted to make a catch.

“We’re trying to do some stuff within our practices to make it competitive because it’s definitely different practicing when you’re not preparing for a game,” Good-Malloy said. “... We’re less worried about the conditioning and fitness side of things, only seeing each group twice a week a total of eight times, what we’re trying to do is a lot of teaching, of techniques, skills and schemes and not try to overdo it.”

Good-Malloy came to the reality a while ago that football wouldn’t be back this fall. For him, these sessions serve as more than a way to return to football. As a parent of young children, it’s a chance to have a little fun, too.

“It’s good to get a couple of hours' break from each other each day that I go to football,” Good-Malloy said. “To see the returning players I know and have good relationships is definitely great, and meeting the new kids is always fun.”

Two injuries marred Austin’s sophomore and junior years. He maintains hope that there will be a last chance for him still this spring. All he can do is keep strengthening his knee, as he did plenty of in the offseason and keep training because he, like every other player taking part in the sessions, doesn’t have the power to bring his games back right now.

Said Good-Malloy on Wednesday morning, "We don’t make those decisions. It’s raining right now. I didn’t ask for it to rain. So, if I’m upset about the rain, I’m kind of wasting my time. Control the controllables.”

The perpetually goal-oriented Arundel volleyball team, which captured its first state title in program history in the modern MPSSAA era last fall, is learning how be content with present circumstances. Practicing indoors, everyone wears masks, even while drilling. They’re split into two smaller groups. The returning core keeps things moving.

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“The last week has been a hard week of memories,” coach Ashley Yuscavage said. “Senior night, county championship coming up, the big games, the big newspaper articles. It’s been emotional.”

Before this week, South River senior Meagan Quick felt the absence of competitive, high school field hockey. Though she played club over the summer, she felt nothing could fill that void.

Even during Monday’s session, which began with answering coronavirus-related questions and setting her stuff six feet from her teammate’s, Quick kept feeling that missing piece.

“It was kind of in the back of my head that this isn’t our actual season and we’re not going to have actual games," Quick said. "But after I left practice, I was really happy. I’m really glad to be back.”

The Seahawks senior said the goal of these next four weeks will be to both hone her and her teammates’ skills while building relationships. She hopes that once these sessions end, she’ll be able to convince her teammates to join her for indoor field hockey over the winter to keep them fresh for the possible spring season and quicken their hand skills.

Building those relationships across the board won’t be so straight-forward for the team’s coach, Megan Atkinson. Because of distancing requirements, the 51-player roster is divided — the disproportionately larger group of freshmen go to one side to be instructed by another coach, while Atkinson handles the other three grades.

She’s not looking at that as a disadvantage, but rather a positive. Though she felt disappointed she couldn’t work with both groups, she could enter spring tryouts without any opinions formed about the freshmen.

“I think [practice] ran pretty smoothly for our first time, given that they were just excited to be there. So they were probably willing to do anything just to stay out there," Atkinson said. "It was nice to be out there, see them again and feel a little bit of pre-COVID normalcy we were all kind of yearning for.”

Without the relentless pressure of preparing for the next game and next opponent’s particular characteristics, the South River coach can slow the tempo and focus on individual skill-work there wouldn’t be time for in a typical October.

“It was more relaxed in a sense, but I feel like the girls are getting the most out of it," Atkinson said, "because we as coaches can really take the time to teach some stuff.”

Chesapeake cross country coach Dwight Kneass had concern before Monday’s practice that coronavirus safety protocols would eat up too much of his 90-minute allotment with his runners.

Those fears were swiftly dashed. They ran through those requirements quickly; runners kept their masks on during dynamic workouts and walking to and from the stadium. They kept their arms spread out like airplanes, to remain six feet apart, and if they forgot, as kids do, “you just scream ‘airplane’ at them, and they adapt pretty quick,” Kneass said.

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Kneass said if you coach long enough, you can tell when your athletes are happy. As runners promised they’d be back Wednesday — just as they’d committed to every virtual session with Kneass over the summer — he could tell that remained true.

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“It’s a culture. They just love to be there. Being on a high school team is voluntary," Kneass said. "... They just want to be there. At the time, they would take anything they could get.”

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