College football programs left and right have seen their seasons canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In Utah, only Brigham Young University remains with games on its schedule, albeit only three.
But high school football pushes on, not just in Utah but all over the country. Fourteen states decided to push their seasons to 2021, per MaxPreps, but the rest have either decided to start on time or push the season back to later in the year.
One of the states starting on time is Utah, much to the approval of coaches across several fall sports. Thursday’s game between Herriman and Davis marks the first regular season football game to be played in the country since the pandemic started. In July, the Shrine Bowl was played in Nebraska in front of 2,500 fans, marking the first football game overall since the pandemic.
Schools across the state already know what’s at stake. And it got even more real when news broke that Weber and Bingham had to cancel their game Friday because three Bingham players tested positive for coronavirus.
So when the Mustangs and Darts kick off Thursday at 7 p.m. at Herriman High, all eyes will be monitoring how coaches, players and spectators navigate the various coronavirus protocols set forth by the Utah Department of Health.
“We’re going to be kind of setting the standard,” said Mitch Arquette, who coaches the Davis football team and also serves as the school’s athletic director.
Officials from both programs expressed excitement about finally getting to play football again. But the state of the pandemic in Utah is still very much on their minds.
Thursday’s game will feature one team that has had plenty of experience in dealing with coronavirus and its effects. A staff member from Herriman High contracted the virus in June. Subsequent testing of every player and coach on the team revealed four players also had it, Mustangs coach Dustin Pearce said.
Pearce said everyone has made a full recovery and the players can compete on the field. He added that he, his coaching staff and the school district have all been preaching social distancing, wearing masks and following any other safety protocols.
“Football is important to these kids, so it’s something that all of us are practicing,” Pearce said. “We want football to happen.”
Arquette said some athletes have tested positive throughout Davis, but not did specify which sports were affected. He did say, however, that the COVID-19 tests some football players have taken did not come back positive.
For now, it’s all systems go for high school football in Utah. But not everyone agreed with the Utah High School Activities Association’s decision not to push back the fall season.
Ryan Jensen, an assistant coach at Herriman and chair of the Utah Democratic Health Care Caucus, sent a letter to the UHSAA board of trustees Tuesday expressing concern that high schools aren’t equipped to keep athletes and coaches safe from the virus. He mentioned that universities have more resources at their disposal, but many of them decided to pull the plug on their fall season anyway.
“They have money, they have doctors, they have the real health boards, they have the resources — all the things you unfortunately do not have and they still see it as a huge liability,” Jensen wrote to the board.
Jensen won’t coach at Herriman this season due to the coronavirus and his concern that he’ll put his new son, Riggs, in danger. Pearce supported that decision.
“That’s definitely his call,” Pearce said. “I understand that his family and his livelihood comes first. That’s a decision that I stand by and I respect.”
Jensen told The Salt Lake Tribune that it’s “alarming” how it seems parents and kids don’t understand the risks they are taking by playing sports. He also doesn’t believe the UHSAA understands how much money and effort it takes to implement sanitation and prevention measures in full.
In his email, Jensen accused the board of focusing solely on the immediate benefits of sports.
“My concern is we are only worried about the instant gratification and affects [sic] right now,” Jensen wrote. “You all are playing with one hell of a science experiment.”
Herriman High athletic director Brad Tingey said there have been many meetings with the Jordan School District and health department to figure out how to best implement safety protocols. There have been health screenings before every practice that will carry over to games. Social distancing and mask wearing are being stressed. And the Herriman High stadium will allow only 25% capacity with spectators.
But even Tingey understands that if the virus surges, the season could be in serious jeopardy.
“I think that’s certainly a possibility that they might shut things down,” Tingey said. “But right now, we’re just focused on following the guidelines that we’ve been given and we’re just going to try and do it as safe as we possibly can.”
For Arquette, it doesn’t even make sense to think too far into the future given the practically daily uncertainty during the pandemic.
“I’m really not thinking about finishing the season,” Arquette said. “I’m just planning week to week right now. That’s all we can do.”
Jensen has a deep desire for sports to return. But the health and safety of the athletes supersede that desire.
On the other hand, the significance of Thursday’s game could come down to something as simple as regaining even a modicum of familiarity.
“I just think it’s an opportunity to try and start to approach normal again,” Tingey said. “People are hoping for that.”
THIS WEEK’S UTAH PREP FOOTBALL OPENERS
All games 7 p.m. unless noted.
Davis at Herriman
Snow Canyon at Cyprus, 5:30 p.m.
Ridgeline at Pine View, 6 p.m.
Provo at Logan
Bountiful at Highland
Spanish Fork at Cedar
Judge Memorial at Layton Christian Academy
North Sanpete at Grantsville
Cottonwood at Summit Academy
Delta at San Juan
Roy at Jordan
West Jordan at East
Stansbury at Sky View
Payson at Canyon View
Bonneville at Hunter
Providence Hall at Ben Lomond
Weber at Bingham, canceled
Granger at Syracuse
Grand County at Beaver
Hurricane at Richfield
Lehi at American Fork
Lone Peak at Timpview
Manti at Crimson Cliffs
Fremont at Brighton
West at Clearfield
Ogden at Union
Taylorsville at Copper Hills
Bear River at Juan Diego Catholic
Orem at Mountain View
Kearns at Box Elder
Pleasant Grove at Riverton
Maple Mountain at Cedar Valley
Green Canyon at Tooele
Viewmont at Northridge
Mountain Ridge at Olympus
Layton at Skyline
South Summit at Milford
Farmington at Corner Canyon
American Leadership Academy at Carbon
Timpanogos at Hillcrest
Duchesne at Enterprise
Monticello at Kanab
Emery at Millard
Skyridge at Alta
Westlake at Woods Cross
South Sevier at North Sevier
Springville at Dixie
Salem Hills at Mountain Crest
Park City at Wasatch
Parowan at Juab
Desert Hills at Murray
Uintah at North Summit