NEW PALESTINE — It's Friday night in New Palestine, a perfect evening for a high school football homecoming game.
The sun is setting in the west and the lights are on at Kelso Stadium as New Palestine hosts Hancock County rival Greenfield Central.
It's a scene not unlike those at about 130 Indiana high school fields this Friday. Midway into the 2020 season, about 90% of Indiana schools are playing football, according to the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA). The number of fans allowed in the stands has been reduced and schools must follow strict protocols to keep spectators and players safe from COVID-19.
While a few schools decided against football this year, and others have seen some of their games canceled, overall the plans laid out by the IHSAA and county health departments appear to be working.
All of this in a year when Major League Baseball teams are playing in empty stadiums, the NBA moved its games to a bubble at Disney World, NFL teams play before a few thousand fans or none at all, and the college football schedule was thrown into disarray.
The fact that high school football is taking place amazes New Palestine Head Coach Kyle Ralph, who has led his team to consecutive 5A State Championships in two unbeaten seasons. "You know, quite honestly, I did not think we could get here," he said. "I really didn't think we could make it through a couple of weeks, the way things started off. That first week around the state, there were maybe 30 games that got canceled. It just didn't look good at the start."
New Palestine was one of the schools that lost a game to the virus, according to Athletic Director Al Cooper. The Dragons were scheduled to host Decatur Central in their opening game, but one positive COVID test led to 30% of the varsity team being placed in quarantine. "That has been a good reminder to our kids how important it is to follow the rules and be safe," Cooper said.
So what are the rules? Here's a sample:
- Attendance is limited. For New Palestine, that means 750 tickets can be sold, up from the original 500. The health department determines attendance numbers.
- Fans are expected to sit on marked spots in the bleachers and wear masks when moving around the facility.
- Team benches have been extended to allow some distance between each player.
- Players standing on the sidelines have marked spaces that are six feet from each other.
- Players are supposed to wear masks when on the sidelines but not when in the game.
- At New Palestine, only about 40 players out of the more than 60 on the team dress for road games.
- On bus rides, players must be spread out on assigned seats.
- The number of players inside some locker rooms at any one time is limited.
"We have done the best we could in making sure we maintain a protocol of safety for our players and our fans and everyone else," said Cooper.
None of this has been easy, said Coach Ralph. Each Indiana county has its own rules. "Last week we had to go to Yorktown up in Delaware County and their rules were a lot different than our rules. They were great about letting us know ahead of time what the rules were for the county and how we had to approach that stuff, so you know, each week we have to make a new plan."
"The first couple of weeks it was something really difficult for us to have to adjust to, to be quite honest" the coach said. "It really takes a lot of the intensity and passion out of a football game because you know when you have a big play and a lot of kids tend to gravitate down the sidelines and toward the big play, but now they have to stand on a piece of blue tape and not move. It almost feels like a golf match out there!"
The players, after all, are teenagers and they tend to feel invincible, said both Cooper and Ralph. "I know what the data says, I know that the numbers say that the virus doesn't affect teenager the way it's affected some of the populations that are older than them," said Ralph. "At the end of the day, though, it may not affect you as a teenage young man, but if you bring that home with you, it may affect your parents differently, it may affect an aunt or uncle differently, and you just got to be smart about those things and you got to take care of yourself so you can take care of other people."
The players seem to be getting the message. "I would say it has been difficult, but when you are doing something that you love, I would rather abide by all of this so I know we can play," said Lincoln Roth, New Palestine's senior starting quarterback. "It's hard, but it's not hard at the same time as long as we get to play every Friday night, that's what the main goal is, whether we have 50 people or 1,000 people in the stands, so it makes it pretty easy when you are playing a sport that you love."
What is it like for players once the game begins? "In the game, it's not much different because my mind is focused on what it would normally be focused on, but I would say that on the sidelines, it's a lot different because they are trying to keep us as socially distanced as possible," said Roth. If your helmet
is not on, you have to have your mask on. And water is not the same. You can't just grab a water bottle and drink it, your buddy can't drink it."
For students attending the game, there are also differences. "It's different and its hard to be a senior in this weird year," said Jesi Hall, New Palestine Homecoming Queen. "But I think honestly we're taking it with grace and just experiencing every single moment that we get to have, knowing that every day is a gift and each opportunity that we have is a gift."
"I hope what these kids take out of all of this is that it's not all about them, and that's where a lot of teenagers fail, is everything is about them personally. While it may not personally affect you, it may affect somebody else in a real negative way and you've got to understand that this is a time to grow as young man and learn how to be unselfish and there is a larger world outside you that you need to pay attention to," said Ralph.
"We're in a learning process, but I think we are getting better at it and it's becoming kind of a new normal, but not a normal that I want to become a long-term normal."
Friday night, Ralph walked off the field a happy coach. His team won 17-14.