For Catholic League football teams, postponing fall season is a cross to bear

Running backs at Madison Heights Bishop Foley run through a drill during the first day of football practice Aug. 10. By the end of the week, the Michigan High School Athletic Association postponed the football season until spring, citing concerns over COVID-19. (Photos by Wright Wilson | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Coaches react to MHSAA’s decision to push gridiron season to the spring; fate of other sports to be determined

METRO DETROIT — Like a blitz on third down, the news arrived swiftly and suddenly Friday that the Michigan High School Athletic Association is postponing the fall football season until spring. 

While local Catholic high school coaches were caught off guard, it wasn’t a total shock, and some even found a silver lining in the situation.

“It’s certainly disappointing, but the key is it’s a delay, not a cancellation,” University of Detroit Jesuit coach Matt Lewis said. “(Teams have) been given something special, which is the gift of time. They have a chance to prepare themselves to the best of their ability.”

After being isolated from scholastic sports since March 12, high school football players were able to participate in a week of sanctioned, conditioning-oriented practices from Aug. 10 until the MHSAA’s edict broke at 4 p.m. Friday.

The change in course created a unique — and somewhat awkward — moment for coaches.

“I had an e-mail drafted to our parents about next week, our practice plan, equipment distribution, and other things,” Lewis said. “I was holding out (on sending it) as long as possible. I finally sent the email at 3:52, and just a few minutes later, everything had changed.” 

The Cubs, who won the Catholic League AA Division crown and the Prep Bowl Wild Card game in 2019, had a practice scheduled for later that afternoon at 5 p.m. Some members of the team were already on campus ready to work out.

Bishop Foley head coach Brian Barnes prepares to sanitize football equipment by spraying it with a disinfectant. Football teams took extra precautions against the spread of COVID-19 before the state association deemed it was too much of a risk to play this fall.

“The coaches met them as they were being dropped off (at school). If they weren’t there yet, we said hey, just stay home,” Lewis said. “I didn’t know what to do. We cancelled practice. It was kind of a whirlwind moment Friday. We had a Zoom meeting (Sunday night) so we could get all the players together at once and explain things.”

At Clarkston Everest Collegiate, coach Mike Pruchnicki said his Mountaineers were doing a “game-day walkthrough” and were about to attend a team Mass at 4:15 prior to their workout. Pruchnicki saw the MHSAA announcement and saw the opportunity to break the news following Mass.

“It was pretty fitting that we found out right before Mass,” he said. “And we were fortunate to have kids there so we could tell them in person. For a young kid, (moving the football season) is a hard thing to accept. These kids have had their spring taken away, most of summer, and now the fall football season. But compare that to Christ on the cross — that’s the biggest sacrifice of all time.”

The Mountaineers are defending Intersectional-2 and Cardinal Division Prep Bowl champions, and were also looking to accomplish big things this fall.

“I felt the same as they did — disappointed, right?” Pruchnicki said. “But the kids see the Holy Spirit coming in, and that’s the important thing. That’s who we are as people and what we preach to the kids — virtues, just to trust and believe and have faith in God.” 

On Friday, the MHSAA representative council announced it had consulted with state health department officials and was assessing data from a first-week survey from football coaches. Although the MHSAA originally had hoped to play this fall, it became apparent football still posed a high risk for further spread of the novel coronavirus.

Allen Park Cabrini football players jog a lap and report back to run through the offensive plays during the Monarchs’ first practice on Aug. 10. The MHSAA has now delayed the football season, hoping to resume at some point in the spring.

“At the end of the day, we did everything we could to find a path forward for football this fall,” MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl said in a statement. “But while continuing to connect with the governor’s office, state health department officials, our member schools’ personnel and the council, there is just too much uncertainty and too many unknowns to play football this fall.

“No one is willing to take the risk of COVID being passed on because of a high-risk sport. Decisions have to be made on our other sports as well, but none of those carry the same close, consistent, and face-to-face contact as football.”

The MHSAA is still formulating details for the spring football season, including a schedule and playoff format. Meanwhile, the organization still has to figure out what’s best for the other fall sports, including cross-country, girls golf, boys soccer, boys tennis and girls volleyball.

“I think the MHSAA truly wants us to play, and I think they’ll do their best about trying to fit in a season this spring,” Lewis said. “As long as kids don’t have to choose between sports, I’m good with it. Some football is better than no football.”

According to the MHSAA, 34,219 student-athletes statewide played football in 2019, and more than 600 high schools were poised to have another campaign this fall before the postponement went into effect.

“I wouldn’t say it was a surprise, because you see what’s out there and you don’t know what’s going to happen from day to day,” Pruchnicki said. “It was just fun being out there for a few days after being away for so long. That’s what we take away from it the most.”