For the next week or so, many student-athletes in central Illinois will take on double duty while coaches work to coordinate schedules so players don’t get spread too thin.
Practices opened Wednesday for the upcoming high school football season, postponed by COVID-19 last fall. Simultaneously, the revised boys basketball season continues through March 13.
This poses a challenge for programs that share players between the two sports, particularly at smaller schools. For example, Farmington High School.
“We've always prided ourselves in that our kids do everything,” said Farmington football coach Toby Vallas. “If you look at a kid from our school that’s a good football player, basketball player, they're always the same. Everybody does everything and that’s a good thing, but boy it’s created some hassles this year.”
The Farmers went 8-3 in football in 2019 with a 5-0 record in the Prairieland Conference’s Blue Division. Vallas said about 40 boys across all levels of the high school football program also are basketball players, so coaches will shorten the length of practices for both sports during the overlap.
“We basically sat down, all our coaches, and we decided that we really didn't think it was fair to make the kids put in more than three hours a day,” he said. “Nobody told us that, but we just felt like that was the right thing to do by kids with their homework and other things they've going on. So, kids will do their hour-to-hour-and-a-half of basketball, and then the remaining time would be football.”
The first season openers for varsity football are scheduled for March 19. Normally, football players must have 12 practice days before they can play in a game, but this year the IHSA reduced that to 10.
At Peoria Notre Dame, the arrival of football comes while the basketball team tries to cap off a strong season. The Irish are ranked No. 6 in the Class 3A state rankings with a 11-1 record entering a three-game stretch over three days to finish this week ahead of next week’s Big 12 Conference Tournament.
Notre Dame coach Tom Lacher said three of his varsity players also are on the football team. He agreed it’s important for coaches to find the right balance for the players while not overwhelming them.
“You don't want to put them in a position where they're overworking themselves or possibly putting themselves out there for a chance of injury,” said Lacher, noting the goal of not depriving the two-sport athletes from any more experiences in a pandemic-plagued academic year.
“We're prepared to do whatever we need to do for the success of the young men in our program and in the football program and the athletic department,” he said. “Because really, when it comes down to it, it's all about them getting the opportunity, especially this year.”
Athletic directors like Brien Dunphy at Peoria High and Katie Cazalet at Dunlap acknowledge the overlap situation makes it critical to have football and basketball coaches who get along and are willing to collaborate and coordinate with each other.
“My coaches are fantastic. They know their students inside and out, and as long as they communicate daily, everybody's going to get what they need,” said Dunphy. “That's what our job is; we want our students to experience everything that they can.
“If my coaches didn't get along, we'd be having a totally different conversation. We'd probably be needing the three or four of us regularly trying to work (things) out because we'd have some unhappy students and we'd have some unhappy parents. The last thing we want is for a student to quit basketball, assuming they can start right away with football. We're not seeing anything like that.”
Cazalet said the coaches need to be creative in figuring out how to get the players enough practice time in both sports so they are fully prepared for the games.
“If they have a basketball game one night, or basketball practice but it gets out early, they can come walk through practice at football for a little while,” said Cazalet. “You know, you don't want them to go through a full-on basketball practice and then a full-on football practice back to back.”
Like Farmington, Eureka High School’s varsity football team went 8-3 in 2019, and the Hornets are currently 9-2 in basketball--one game out of first place in the Heart of Illinois Conference. Eureka football coach Jason Bachman said the two sports there share about 20 players across all levels.
But unlike Farmington, the Eureka does not have to worry about kids dividing time between the hardwood and the gridiron. That’s because the HOIC chose to avoid the overlap issue entirely by ending the basketball season Friday and delaying the start of football practices until Saturday.
“It was a major point of emphasis for our athletic directors in the conference,” said Bachman. “They didn't feel it's in the best interest of the kids did to have the overlap or having to make the decision between two practices, especially with some of the schools in our conference--the ones towards the smaller side.”
The HOIC also opted for a four-game football schedule to avoid similar overlapping issues with baseball and track later this spring.
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