Prep football is back — and Catholic schools are adapting quickly

Royal Oak Shrine football players listen intently as head coach Oscar Olejniczak explains the new guidelines for the fall football season during a team workout at the school Thursday. On Sept. 3, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced high school sports, including football, can go forward this fall. (Wright Wilson | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Governor’s order, MHSAA decision mean high school football and other sports can resume this fall, but safety remains priority

ROYAL OAK — Oscar Olejniczak couldn’t fully see the faces of his masked-up football players, but he was sure of one thing.

“I knew they were grinning from ear to ear,” the head coach at Royal Oak Shrine said. “And as they saw the look in my eyes, I knew they were ready to go to work.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s latest executive order issued Sept. 3 relaxed restrictions on organized youth sports, and subsequently, the Michigan High School Athletic Association deemed it possible to play football this fall. After the news broke, students, coaches and athletic directors quickly mobilized to prepare themselves for a shortened season that will begin in two weeks.

Shrine had already scheduled a workout Thursday — one of the 16 fall sessions teams were allowed under the prior MHSAA guidelines — so it was convenient for Olejniczak to announce the news to his squad in one spot. It turned out he didn’t have to explain much — his players already knew about the change, as word that the season could resume spread quickly. 

“We have a veteran team, and they were ready to practice,” he said. “The energy was a little bit different.”

Shrine, which would have opened its season with a game against Madison Heights Madison on Aug. 27, will now get its slate under way by hosting Marine City Cardinal Mooney on Sept. 18, in a Catholic League Intersectional-2 contest.

Last season, Shrine won its district playoff contest over Britton-Deerfield, 23-6, to avenge its first loss of the season. The Knights finished 9-3 overall, and runners-up in the Catholic League Intersectional-2 division. (Lacey Greyerbiehl | Special to Detroit Catholic)

“(The sudden news) allowed us to focus and view this workout a little bit differently,” Olejniczak said. “Originally, we were preparing for the spring, and we were going to bond with a fun group of activities and build on that. Instead, we changed our approach toward complete preparation for our Week 4 opponent, Cardinal Mooney. My staff has done an excellent job of breaking down (game) film from past years and we’re going to prepare for the type of offense and defense they play.”

Although not all of the schedule details have been finalized, the MHSAA said teams may resume formal practices Tuesday, Sept. 8, and begin games the weekend of Sept. 18. That would leave schools with a six-game shortened season, playing their originally scheduled opponents from the fourth-through-ninth weeks. There will be an expanded playoff scheme for which every team will qualify.

“Our goal is to win championships and be the first team in Shrine history to win back-to-back district championships,” said Olejniczak, who led his team to a 9-3 record last year as the Knights played into the regional round after playoff victories against Ottawa Lake Whiteford and Britton-Deerfield. 

Catholic League director Vic Michaels is glad the MHSAA reversed course from its Aug. 14 edict, which would have postponed the football season until early spring 2021, in hopes that the novel coronavirus pandemic would have passed by then. 

According to Michaels, several factors drove the MHSAA’s decision: other states, including Ohio and Indiana, have begun prep football seasons without major COVID-related incidents, and an early-spring schedule might have been prohibitive for schools in northern Michigan, where the effects of severe winters often last into May. Plus, the MHSAA confirmed that athletes didn’t stop playing their sports altogether under the previous restrictions.

“I haven’t really been able to digest the whole thing yet, but this is an opportunity for kids to play sports in the safest way possible,” Michaels said. “There were a lot of violations of the (previous) order with people working out in gyms, playing AAU, seven-on-seven football, and it wasn’t as safe as it should have been. I’m glad we, as schools, now have control over the situation.”

Madison Heights Bishop Foley football coach Brian Barnes “masks up” during the Ventures’ first practice of the season on Monday, Aug. 10. (Wright Wilson | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Beyond football, other fall sports such as boys soccer, girls swimming and diving, and girls volleyball had been in limbo, unable to play contests outside of Michigan’s Zones 6 and 8 (in the Upper Peninsula and the northern Lower Peninsula). Those sports may resume, along with cross country, girls golf and boys tennis, which were deemed low-risk sports and were already under way.

Michaels said the MHSAA Representative Council and the Catholic League athletic directors met Thursday to discuss the sudden reversal of course.

“A lot of schools don’t think it’s best right now, but a lot of schools do,” Michaels said. “It’s been a mental health issue throughout all of this (pandemic). It’s one of the good things we can do for students, give them something to do after school, so I think that’s where most of the administrators are right now.”

While student-athletes and coaches are happy about the decision, there still need to be safety guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Michaels said.

“What about spectators?” Michaels said. “We’re following other orders (now) that allow no visitors in our schools, and now you’re going to have people visiting schools to watch a volleyball match? There are lot of issues that we still have to decide on.”

Olejniczak, for one, is not taking the COVID-19 safety precautions lightly. 

“We’ve been going above and beyond what they’ve asked us to do,” he said. “We always wear our gaiters in practice; we’ve done drills with them on, and that will continue in games.”

Coaches will continue to be responsible for monitoring the health of their players as they arrive for team activities and disinfecting equipment after each use.

“We’ll be ready for whatever they ask us to do,” Olejniczak said. “I’m just proud of these guys and our staff, and how they’ve been getting ready for this fall. I’m very excited for the players. Any time they’re happy, I’m happy. I’m excited to see them get a football season.”