Life the last few months for St. Joseph-Ogden High School football coach Shawn Skinner has been much like it has been for everyone else: time for reflection and planning for the upcoming season.
But for Skinner, who begins his fifth season at the helm of the Spartans, there was a noticeable void in his normal routine because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It has been frustrating for everybody, but especially for us because we were just beginning to show signs of growth in the weight room, and to not have that time to work with the guys is not ideal,” Skinner said. “We were trending in the right direction.”
Skinner credits team trainer Casey Hug as a major catalyst to getting things organized once voluntary conditioning workouts began last week.
“He has become sort of a pseudo strength and conditioning coach and has done a fabulous job with our workouts and updating our weight room,” Skinner said.
With the announcement from the IHSA on June 5 that enabled schools to begin workouts with their athletes was no doubt a welcome sight for Skinner and the other football coaches, he said it’s more of a relief to him that they can see their players in person.
“The most frustrating part of the whole pandemic was that we weren’t able to have any contact with our athletes, so when the decision came down to resume workouts, we knew that we would be getting to at least see the guys on a limited basis,” Skinner said.
With the new rules in place, athletes are grouped to no more than 10 people, and there are different times of the day that these groups will work out. The downside to this format is that the groups must stay together and the only way to switch times is to have the entire group make the change.
“We were planning to only go three times a week at this time anyway, so that part of it didn’t change,” Skinner said. “The part that is different is that if someone sleeps in or has an appointment or a job, they cannot slot into another time to make their workout. They have to adhere to the time and group that they were originally assigned to.”
Despite all the adjustments, Skinner is pleased with the turnout thus far. He said 68 athletes are signed up for workouts, and through the first full week, SJO has averaged between 54 and 60 athletes working out at various times.
“Hopefully in a couple of weeks when the state moves into Phase 4 of the reopening, we will have a little bit more leeway with the kids, but right now, we’re pretty pleased with the turnout,” Skinner said.
With the eventual move to phase four, that should open some more opportunities for the team to come together collectively, including some actual football related activities.
“We’re hoping that in a week or so that we’ll be able to get in the weight room, as well as get some things done on the field with more players,” Skinner said. “We are planning to have a camp sometime in July and they have eliminated the dead week during the summer, but we will keep the weight room open for anyone that wants to get some work in that week. We know that families might be going on vacation after being sequestered at home for the past few months, and we want to honor that.”
July is a month that is also chock full of 7-on-7 events and linemen camps, and Skinner expects those to go on when the state moves into the next phase. Those sessions are important for the players to come together against someone other than themselves.
With St. Thomas More dropping down to 8-man football, that created a void in the schedule of every Illini Prairie Conference member. So instead of SJO opening the season against STM, the Spartans picked up a tough Week 1 opponent in Nashville. The Hornets finished 12-2 last season and finished state runner-up in Class 2A.
“The game at Nashville will test us immediately,” Skinner said. “They return nine of 11 starters on offense and seven on defense, so they will be a handful right from the start. With only nine or 10 seniors on our roster, we will rely heavily on the sophomores and juniors to get a lot of playing time this year. We had 21 freshmen sign up and have been steadily at around 19 of them practicing the first week, and after losing 19 seniors last year, this keeps our numbers up where we want them. We’ll also keep those numbers going for the next couple of years as the younger kids get more experience.”
Skinner remains hopeful that there will be a season, and from all indications that he’s seen, he no reason to think otherwise. SJO is slated to kick off at Nashville at 7 p.m. on Aug. 28, the first of nine regular-season games on the schedule.
“The way things are trending, I feel more optimistic as each week passes that we will be OK to proceed with a season as planned,” Skinner said. “Of course, it’s out of our control, but things are progressing in the right direction and as more things begin to open, my confidence level increases.”