ROCHESTER — Seven groups of six football players each are spread around Rochester High School’s track after school Tuesday as a persistent drizzle rains down. Each group takes turns rotating around the track at seven different workout stations, including plyometric box jumps, deadlifting and battle-rope exercises.
It’s the ninth workout this fall for the Warriors, who, like many other football teams around the state, are prevented from participating in contact drills and, for that matter, regular practices. WIAA’s return-to-play guidelines, released Oct. 6, are tied to each county’s COVID-19 positivity rate and cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period. Each sport is also placed in a low-, moderate- or high-risk category. Football is among five sports classified as high-risk.
Thurston County is currently at 105.3 cases per 100,000 with a 4.6 percent positivity rate, placing it in the high-risk category. That means prep teams are limited to workout in groups of six in separate parts of the field/court and separated by a buffer zone. Scrimmages, inter-team competitions and league games are only allowed for low-risk sports, such as tennis, golf, cross country, track and field, tennis and swim and dive.
That means, for now, Rochester coach AJ Easley and his Warriors are stuck performing no-contact workouts on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in preparation for a tentatively-scheduled season in spring 2021 that may never happen.
“The hardest part we have is we have to keep social distancing,” Easley said. “When you have 50 kids, trying to keep them social-distanced is a challenge. But they’re excited and they’re working hard.”
It’s Easley’s first year as head football coach after spending 11 seasons as the girls basketball coach. He has the task of turning around a program that’s had little success and even smaller numbers of kids turning out in recent years.
The Warriors had just 29 varsity players last year, which is low for even a Class 2B team but is almost impossible to win with in Class 2A. League rival Tumwater, which won the 2019 state title, routinely fields 80-100 kids each year.
A lack of bodies showed on the field as the Warriors went 2-7 overall and 0-5 in the 2A Evergreen Conference in 2019, scoring just 12.6 points per game while allowing 45.6 points per game. They’ve finished at the bottom of the league standings for four consecutive seasons.
But prospects are looking brighter for the Warriors on a cold, rainy November day. Easley has 42 kids working out Tuesday and expects to have around 70 by the time the pre-practice period rolls around on Feb. 17, 2021. He ramped up his in-school recruiting efforts once he was hired in May and was able to get 70-75 kids out to a brief workout period in July. He hopes to see those kids stick with it and continue playing next spring.
“We had a really good turnout,” Easley said. “It’s been a little bit of struggle trying to keep them motivated to keep coming when they could be doing all this for nothing.”
Per the WIAA guidelines, high-risk sports such as football are unable to compete in league games until the county they are in reaches fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 and less than a 5 percent positivity rate. On top of that, in order for a season to take place, 50 percent of schools in a WIAA region (by classification) must be eligible to participate in league games. It’s not a hopeful outlook for football, which starts during the height of flu and cold season.
“Any coach who says they’re not worried is lying,” Easley said.
There’s not much coaches can do other than try to keep their kids safe and healthy and wait to see what the future brings. If the season does end up happening, it could be a turnaround season for the Warriors. They lose just six seniors from last year and bring back a wealth of experience, including quite a few incoming seniors who are talented athletes.
With more kids turning out, Easley is striving to have them play one way, instead of on both sides of the ball like in previous years. When they had 29 kids last year, almost everyone had to play both ways, but with around 70 kids, Easley can keep players fresh by playing them only on either offense or defense.
“One thing I talked about with our coaches is, the last couple years, how hard it is to try and coach when your kids never come off the field,” Easley said. “If your o-lineman is starting on the d-line and you’re trying to make adjustments to the offense while he’s on defense, it’s incredibly hard to do.”
Junior Talon Betts, a 6-foot-1, 165-pound wideout, expects to be one of the difference-makers on offense. A rare blend of speed, athleticism and strength, Betts recently placed third in a vertical-jump combine (31 feet, 6 inches), runs a 4.6 40-yard dash and deadlifts 405 pounds. He was a first-team 2A EvCo wide receiver last season as a sophomore.
“He’ll play receiver/slot/wing and running back role for us,” Easley said.
Betts, who racked up 627 yards receiving and four touchdowns in 2019, is excited to be back on the field with his team after spending the summer lifting weights and playing in 7-on-7 tournaments around the state.
“It feels so amazing,” Betts said. “You need this right now.”
Some other players who could make an impact are sophomore Braden Hartley, a 6-foot, 165-pound sophomore who missed last year due to a back injury. Senior James Jimenez will see time at running back. Senior Garrett Glazer tallied 39 tackles, including six for loss last season. Nolan Eyles is a senior turning out for football for the first time and could see time at receiver. Senior linemen Caelen Christensen and Eddie Burkhardt have both started for three years.
“We have some really good running backs but offensive line, for us, will be a strength,” Easley said.
Junior Landon Hawes will return at quarterback after taking over midway through the season last year after starter Daniel May was injured. Hawes was a starting corner before Mays’ injury and was cast right into the fire as his first game at QB was against eventual state champion Tumwater. It’s been a smooth transition for Easley taking over the helm, Hawes said, as Easley has coached the juniors since they were in sixth or seventh grade.
“He knows our strengths really well and I think that’s what he’s trying to do; play to our strengths as well as he can,” Hawes said. “I’ve known him since I was probably like 4 years old.”
Betts, also a junior, is already seeing that shared knowledge between the coach and players pay off during practice.
“It just feels like a different culture and we’re getting better every day, which I love,” Betts said. “I think we have a good chance this season. A lot more positivity, the morale is up, we’re a lot more active and working hard every play.”
Football season is slated to begin with a pre-practice period on Feb. 17, 2021. Regular season is scheduled to run from March 1 to April 25, and a postseason is set to go from April 26 to May 7.