Back on the field

Academy head coach Chris Lancaster instructs his players Monday on the first day for football practice for schools in classes 1A-4A.

Lonnie Judd is approaching his 28th year as a football coach, so he’s been through plenty of first days. However, this first day took its rightful place as the most unique.

“I’ve never had to coach with a mask on,” said Judd, who was hired in February to steer the Moody Bearcats back into form. “But, I was thrilled and the kids were excited.”

That’s because, as permitted by the University Interscholastic League, Monday marked opening day of the 2020 high school football season for Class 1A-4A programs — something familiar at the end of a whirlwind spring and summer that hopefully leads to a full, safe and memorable slate of games over the next few months.

Scrimmages can begin Aug. 20 and the regular season is scheduled to commence Aug. 27.

One day at a time, though. And the first was busy. After all, there is a lot to consider.

From dawn to dusk across the area Monday, weights were heaved up and down, offensive and defensive skills measured, and conditioning levels gauged. All of that was as recognizable at the start of fall camp as the heat and hovering humidity that greeted eager players and coaches.

As for the plentiful medical paperwork, temperature checks, lectures about hygienic protocols, sanitizing and masks made of various cloth materials added to those constructed of carbon steel, that was all quite different. But no required precaution is taken lightly, and following guidelines is paramount while living in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Especially when it comes to health and football, which this year, more than ever, go hand in hand.

“I want to make sure parents understand that as coaches, we are working as hard as anybody to make sure these kids stay on the field,” said Judd, who just recently was scooped up on another emotional roller coaster when McLennan County health officials July 21 said all extracurricular activities were to halt until Sept. 7. That order was rescinded eight days later, clearing the way for 2A Division I club Moody that is in District 12 with other area representatives Bruceville-Eddy, Holland and Rosebud-Lott. “We want to keep the kids as safe as possible and do whatever is best for them.”

At Academy, first-year head coach Chris Lancaster said that includes making sure the players know the playbooks — both on-the-field Xs and Os and off-the-field procedures.

“We really used today to knock out logistics. We had to walk them through how we are going to do things,” said Lancaster, whose Bees are grouped with Caldwell, Cameron Yoe, Lorena, McGregor, Rockdale and Troy in District 11-3A-I. “How we are going to enter the locker room. How we are going to dress. How things are going to be stored. We slowed it down and we walked through things, and then we were able to have good offense and defense segments and some conditioning.

“There was no apprehension for any of these kids. They’re ready. Seeing their attitudes, willingness to work and desire to be part of the program really keeps me vibrant.”

Judd and Lancaster are among eight area coaches who boarded the small school coaching carousel during the offseason.

Stephen Brosch is at 2A-II Granger, Brandon Hicks took over at Rosebud-Lott, Kyle Hauk returned to his alma mater 1A-II Buckholts, Jacob Campsey grabbed the reins from longtime leader Jeff Miller at Rockdale and James Shelton now leads TAPPS six-man program Holy Trinity Catholic.

Then there is Brian Cope, who went from offensive coordinator at Belton High to head coach at new-school-on-the-block Lake Belton, which will be a 4A outpost when it joins a district in 2022. Cope and his coaching staff assembled the Broncos for their inaugural preseason practice at 6:30 a.m., with sights set on the program’s historic first contest.

While most teams had been hosting voluntary summer strength and conditioning programs since June 8, Monday’s practice ushered in another level of meaning for the school in West Temple.

“It was awesome to see 120 Bronco football players putting on that silver helmet for the first time. It was just a really, really exciting first day at Lake Belton High School,” said Cope, commending his coaching staff for not only its role at practice but also its diligence in monitoring all protocols in place. “Our kids were running around drill to drill. You could tell after, even though they were tired, they were excited to start some Bronco traditions.”