As coach Ken Savanah prepared to lead the Stafford High School football team into its fourth season with him at the helm, COVID-19 threw a wrench into the team’s plans months before the season was even set to begin.
Now, five months after the pandemic hit the Houston region and brought high school sports to a halt, the Spartans are taking each game as it comes both on and off the field. Stafford will be the first area school to return to the football field, with its 2020 season opener now scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Saturday against Huffman Hargrave.
“We’ve had to be as flexible as possible with the current situation and just continue to work when the kids get here, get in some good work and plan for the next day. It’s a very fluid situation,” Savanah said. “It’s tough on coaches because we like to control what we can, and we haven’t been able to do that. So we had to roll with what we were able to do.”
The same sentiment holds true with Stafford volleyball coach Ivana Ellas, whose Lady Spartans began their season Aug. 11.
The University Interscholastic League (UIL), which governs extracurricular competition among Texas public schools, allowed football and volleyball teams in Class 4A and below to start practicing on Aug. 3, with volleyball games permitted to start Aug. 10 and football games Aug. 27. For the larger schools competing in Class 6A and 5A, practices can start Sept. 7, with volleyball games allowed to be played starting Sept. 14 and football season starting Sept. 24.
“It’s been difficult because you just don’t know what’s going to happen day-to-day, and it could always change,” Ellas said. “So I wake up now hoping that things are going to go as normal as they possibly can. It’s just a constant thing every day holding each other accountable and making sure we don’t ruin the possibility of us playing out the season.”
In July, the UIL announced significant scheduling modifications for sports and other extracurricular activities, pushing back start dates for the football and volleyball seasons by at least a month for the state’s largest schools. The changes, brought about due to concerns about spreading the new coronavirus, will impact all Fort Bend ISD schools but did not impact Stafford’s original schedule as a smaller school.
And while the Spartans’ football season will soon be underway, Savanah said the sports layoff between March and now has been tough for a number of his players for both on and off-field reasons. Multiple members of the football team have dealt with COVID-19 in their families, he said, while a few also played on the Spartans’ boys basketball team that reached the Class 4A semifinals before the state tournament was cancelled in March.
Further, he said sports sometimes provide stability in an athlete’s life. That has been lost during the layoff, and Savanah his staff has done its best to have virtual meetings with players to keep them in the loop.
“It took a little while to grasp (the basketball kids) back and work with them mentally to understand what the situation was. We also had to educate everybody on just what the situation was and what was safe for us,” he said. “(My assistant coaches) put themselves on the line with everything going on. They know the kids don’t know exactly what to expect, or sometimes who to reach out to when things do happen. A lot of times, that’s the part we play as coaches – that in-between for kids when things go bad.”
Before COVID-19, Ellas said there was excitement in the air. And while that still remains, it’s now accompanied by an almost daily question as to whether they’ll be able to make it to their next game. Amidst evolving UIL stipulations over the last six months, a bevy of more changes have formed a perfect storm of obstacles as teams attempt to navigate the new world of sports during COVID-19.
“Leading up to the season, I tried to talk as if the season was going to happen just to keep a sense of normalcy,” she said. “Because since March, it hasn’t been normal at all for (these girls).”
Typically allowed to practice together, Stafford’s sub-varsity and varsity volleyball teams must now do so in separate gyms. Now, players are required to bring their own water bottles. During the Lady Spartans’ first three matches, the players were required to refrain from postgame handshake lines and stay on one bench the entire game instead of switching sides between sets.
There are also social distancing guidelines in effect for attendance.
“(The players) are ready – it’s about getting them to understand why we’re doing this. It’s more for their safety, not just so we can play,” Ellas said. “The matches we’ve played seem to be working out (with these changes), but as we move forward into district and the playoffs, I can imagine it’s going to be a little more difficult to keep that capacity where it needs to be.”
Whether it’s Zoom meetings for coaches to game plan with players, socially-distanced skill camps or the full-squad workouts since the beginning of March, both Stafford coaches are excited to be regaining some semblance of normalcy. Savanah and the Spartans are coming off a season in which they finished 5-6 overall with their first playoff appearance of his tenure, while Ellas and the Lady Spartans are seeking their first postseason berth since 2015.
“We’ve missed a lot of time here, but our kids are fired up,” Savanah said. “They’re glad to be here, and they’re ready to play.”
Ellas said she sees the coming months as an opportunity to provide hope for the rest of the area as sports slowly make a comeback.
So she and Stafford’s other coaches plan to take the chance seriously.
“We have the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, this can work, everything we’ve been told,’ ” she said. “As long as we continue to follow (those rules), we can have a season.”