Area High Schools discuss football season heading into final week

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Seth Martin instagram @seth.mart

Marion, Carterville, and Carbondale Uniforms

By Brandyn Wilcoxen, Staff Reporter

During the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the barometers for normalcy has been sports. As months have passed and more progress has been made in the effort to combat the pandemic, progress has also been made in the return of high school sports.

A notable accomplishment has been returning high school football to its regular place in the fall sports calendar, after the 2020 season was delayed to spring 2021. Even as the pandemic continues, Illinois High School Association schools have managed to make football resemble pre-2020 as closely as possible.

“We appreciate games a whole lot more now than we used to, because you never know when you might lose your season, or you might lose a Friday night,” Marion head coach Kerry Martin said. “We truly appreciate every chance we get to play.”

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The Marion Wildcats posted a 6-0 record during the shortened 2020-21 season, and have continued their success this year with a 7-1 record headed into the final week of the regular season.

“We’ve had a few cases here and there, but that’s kind of the new norm,” Martin said. “Fortunately, we’ve not had it where it’s impacted the outcome of a game, or it has not impacted us playing a game.”

While Marion has remained relatively unscathed, Carbondale Community High School was not so fortunate. The Terriers were scheduled to host Cahokia on Sept. 24, but Carbondale AD Gwen Poore received a call that morning that a Cahokia player had tested positive for COVID-19 the day before. The decision was made that afternoon to cancel the game.

“They were still in the process of trying to figure out where they were, who they were going to be able to allow to come back to school on Monday,” Poore said. “If it had happened and they called on Monday of that week, I think they would have had plenty of time to do their procedures and protocols, but just getting that test on Thursday and we get a call on Friday that they have a positive, we were a little wary to bring them to our place.”

CCHS has had little issue with COVID, and Poore credits the Jackson County Health Department with its help in keeping the few cases they do have under control.

“They [JCHD] have been extremely helpful. They do our contact tracing for us, they are on top of it. They get back to us right away. They have been wonderful. It’s been a good partnership and a good relationship to work with them,” Poore said.

Illinois high schools must require students and staff to wear masks indoors during the school day in order to participate in IHSA postseason events. With the Marion Wildcats at 7-1 and the Carbondale Terriers at 5-3, neither school is looking to miss out on their playoff chances.

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“I think there were some [schools] that were dragging their feet, so the IHSA stepped in and said ‘you need to do it or you won’t be able to participate in postseason,’” Poore said. “But I think most schools are doing it now because they want to participate.”

Martin has been the head coach of the Marion Wildcats since 2002. Despite over 20  years of coaching experience, Martin expressed how unprecedented this season has been.

“For me, there’s always been a certain way of doing things, and for me, this has been a dramatic change,” Martin said. “And for the kids, who have not played high school football but just a year or so, the change wasn’t as dramatically different because they didn’t have the experience.”

COVID first started impacting high school sports in the United States in March 2020, meaning that students who are freshmen or sophomores have been dealing with pandemic-related restrictions for their entire high school careers.

“Not having COVID, for some of my kids, would now be the change,” Martin said. “I’ve got freshmen and sophomores that don’t know football without Covid. It’s a strange thing to say, but it’s true. Some day when this thing is gone, hopefully not having Covid testing and quarantines and masks indoors and all kinds of stuff will be the odd thing.”

The return of fall football also comes with the return of fans to the stands. Football being an outdoor sport means there are no restrictions to capacity, allowing parents, students, and alumni to attend their local school’s home games just like they had in years past.

“I would say the numbers look like they’re increasing in terms of fan support,” Poore said. “The students are coming out. Our participation is down, but those students that are there are thrilled to be out doing something and doing something that they love.”

Martin said, “It’s just great to have our fans there. Our band, and our cheerleaders, and our dance team. It’s a good thing to have, and we’re glad to have them back.”

Martin credits his players for their ability to adapt to pandemic restrictions, which are constantly changing and continue to change with new information.

“I’m amazed how resilient the kids have been through this whole thing. They’ve really handled things very very well, considering this has been a dramatic change from what they’re used to,” Martin said.

With the end of October looming, both teams look forward to the postseason, with Marion already having punched its ticket with at least six wins.

For Marion, 2021 marks its 16th consecutive postseason appearance under Martin.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work to maintain that success, and to keep the kids from becoming complacent, keep the kids humble and motivated. We have the same challenge that everybody else does; keeping kids out, keeping the program together and challenging the kids, battling Covid and injuries and everything else that goes on,” Martin said.

Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @Brandyn_2020

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