RIPON — Returning lineman Todd Beatty III had to remind his teammates on a few occasions to mind their distance as the junior varsity and varsity football teams worked through various drills at the Ripon Christian practice field on Thursday.
“At first it was a little bit of a learning curve, trying to make sure we're staying at a distance and things like that,” he said. “After doing it for almost two weeks we've got it down pretty well.”
Yes, the Ripon Christian football and volleyball teams have quietly gotten a head start to the 2020 season, in case there is one.
The Sac-Joaquin Section's schedule for the 2020-21 academic year has remained unchanged thus far, but chances of the fall sports season getting canceled altogether remain a possibility as counties across the state enter phase 3 of its four-phase reopening plan from the coronavirus lockdown.
Fellow parochial programs Big Valley Christian and Central Catholic, both of Modesto, began their summer football workouts on Monday. Meanwhile, some public school districts in the surrounding area — including the Manteca Unified School District — have recently announced that their schools may begin practicing next week.
As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in the region, San Joaquin County recommended the temporary closure of its school districts on March 13 when most Manteca-area spring sports teams played their final games. Athletes were not allowed to gather for practices on campuses in the mean time.
Then on April 3, the California Interscholastic Federation canceled its spring sports postseason events after state officials encouraged all schools to shut down campuses in favor of distance learning.
“It's been a long spring for all of the schools around here and our students,” Ripon Christian Athletic Director Kevin Tameling said. “We've been having conversations with our administration and the school board, and we felt that if we were able to provide some simple guidelines for our coaches to follow we could do some workouts in an appropriate manner.
“Things change by the week and the day, so you just try to follow what the health departments are asking of us.”
Ripon Christian junior varsity head football coach Michael Dotinga and strength and conditioning coach Justin Unruh have helped lead workouts this week as first-year head varsity coach Phil Grams continues his move from Wisconsin. The former coach at Sacramento powerhouse Capital Christian spent the last three years serving as offensive coordinator for NCAA Division III Lawrence University.
Tameling said the locker rooms remain closed for all athletes. The weight room has been in use, but small groups are allowed at a time and disinfectants are readily available for the athletes to help keep the equipment clean.
Outdoor training has been limited to skill-based drills, agility work and conditioning. With less than 200 students at the school, the smaller numbers allow its teams to safely practice under the recommended guidelines.
“One of the big things we've heard from health departments is to keep groups small, and for the most part we're able to do that in the settings that we have here and the number of student-athletes we have coming out,” Tameling said.
First-year volleyball coach Kayla Kootstra emphasizes to her players that these summer workouts are voluntary. Players are spread out throughout the gym during conditioning and divided into small groups for drill work. They're also encouraged to wash hands before and after practice.
“No one is required to be here,” she said. “It's not going to impact their playing time or what my thoughts are of them. I want them to understand that if they're not comfortable with coming out or they don't want to be in the gym that's OK, too. So far, these girls seem excited to come back and do something normal.”
Kootstra, who is going into her fourth year of teaching at Ripon Christian, helped supervise open-gym sessions last summer on days the previous coaches could not. She said an average of about 10 players would show up. There have been around 25 coming to these optional workouts.
“They were looking for a social outlet, and this offers that as well as an opportunity to get into the gym and physically do some stuff together,” Kootstra said. “The 'together' part is what they've been missing.”
Now, it's just a matter of having a season for the Knights and the rest of the schools who are reopening their campuses for their athletes in the coming days and weeks. Ripon Christian plans to have its first day of school on Aug. 19 as scheduled.
It would be heartbreaking in particular for Beatty to have his senior campaign completely wiped out. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound tackle had to sit out the first month of his junior season at Ripon Christian because of California Interscholastic Federation transfer rules — he previously played for St. Mary's.
“We're extremely blessed to be out here to work together as a team, continue to improve and bond as a group” he said. “We're thankful to be able come out here even though it's under certain guidelines. We've had to change some stuff up with how our practice works, but we are happy to be out here.
“Hopefully we can get some (schools) to follow in our direction, because we would love to be able to have a season. At the end of the day, we understand it's about safety and everyone's health.”