Versailles and Eldon football programs ready to make comeback from COVID
It is the news any football program fears the most in 2020.
The football programs at Versailles and Eldon, like others across the state of Missouri, have faced the reality that there would be at least one Friday night these programs could not get back. For a game that does not guarantee very long careers for many with how difficult it can be to avoid injury or move on to a higher level, COVID-19 has presented an additional ugly barrier for those who love to be on the gridiron.
Due to concerns with the coronavirus, the Tigers saw their scheduled Tri-County Conference games against Hallsville and Southern Boone get cancelled and have not played since hosting Warsaw on September 4. Meanwhile, the Mustangs were forced to cancel a scheduled game against Hallsville last week with their last game being played at Osage on September 11.
Knowing how easily it can be taken away again, both programs are now eager to return this week and enjoy the rest of a season that has been unlike any other in the past century. Versailles will visit Blair Oaks and Eldon will visit Southern Boone Friday night with both kickoffs scheduled for 7 p.m.
Versailles learned the terrible news just after practice on the night before the Tigers were scheduled to take on Hallsville. After a team meeting on Friday afternoon, Versailles coach Kirk Hannah recalled it being like a “kick in the gut” because some kids learned they were going in quarantine because of close contact, despite not feeling sick. For the Tigers, it was all of the linemen who would have to miss some significant time.
“There was just kind of the sense of disbelief. You always knew it was something that could happen because we’ve talked to them about it- play every play like it’s your last, you never know when we are going to get shut down and then we got shut down and it was like, ‘Wow, this is really real.’ It was difficult and really hard,” Hannah remarked.
“It is difficult because these guys come out and work every day and look forward to games. That is their paycheck and they did not get their paycheck so it was very hard.”
Versailles senior Mason Hibdon was the only lineman who did not have to quarantine and that was simply because he was not a close contact after being in concussion protocol after the Warsaw game. However, it still remains tough as a senior knowing two games were taken off the list.
“Being my last year I like hanging out with the boys, being able to tackle, have fun and spend time with the memories and moments we have left,” Hibdon said, saying it was an emotional time for the senior class.
“It is nice to be out here, spend time with everyone and have everyone back healthy.”
Tuesday’s practice was the first time the quarantined players could return to the field since September 10 and in their absence, the Tigers continued to practice each day with the skill players. During the season, the focus is usually on preparing for the next opponent but with a pair of games being cancelled, Hannah said practices served as a rare opportunity to go back to the fundamentals. Practices in the absence of a game became like camp nights in the summer as the coaches drilled and tried to maintain as fun of an environment as possible.
“I think it did us some good. It sucked not having our ‘Hogs’ here but they did get something out of it,” the coach noted. “Some kids were like, ‘Coach, we really did not understand this but now we do.’ If you are looking for a rainbow somewhere, that might have been it- a bright spot that we got to take some kids and teach them a few things that maybe we had forgotten about.”
At the same time, Hannah knows how crucial the linemen are to both sides of the football. At the very least, the team had two online Zoom meetings with those who could not attend practices to keep them up to date.
“What we do and try to do, those are the most important people. They have to know their blocking schemes and you are hesitant to put in new plays because they are not here,” Hannah said of the lineman group. “When you can run on air it looks great, but when you put in a bunch of offensive and defensive linemen out there it does not look so great sometimes. It is kind of a learning process all over again.”
And the Tigers will have to get back in game shape quickly with a trip to Blair Oaks on Friday against a Falcons team that has won 51 straight regular season games. Being away from the structure of school and football, that work began Tuesday night.
“You don’t have to remind them very many times who we are playing on Friday. The best team possibly in the whole state of any classification may be Blair Oaks and that is who we get coming back,” Hannah said. “To get them focused on what they are getting ready to go face on Friday, it is not too difficult.”
Hibdon is certainly aware of the task ahead.
“It is a lot of mental and physical stuff. We have to be pretty crisp on what we have to do,” the senior said of trying to make up for missed time.
The safety protocols Versailles already had in place will remain in effect as Hannah noted the issue arose from a singular case that had nothing to do with any school-related activities. The coach said there is a renewed focus by both players and coaching staff to try and ensure no more time will be missed and the idea going forward is opportunity because the remainder of the season still exists. With district classifications recently being released, the coach is optimistic about the playoffs down the road.
“Nobody came in and said you are done for the entire year, we got two games and that is the end of our season so that has been a good thing. Our districts were released so that was a bit of a bright spot for our guys yesterday to put that on the board,” Hannah said. “Warsaw is a good team but that is probably the best team in our district. Butler is pretty good, too, but man there is nobody in there that really scares you. So, that is a bit of a silver lining. We take care of business, continue to practice and get better each week and our district- there are good teams in it- but I feel like if we can continue our season, we can be just as good come playoff time.”
Eldon coach Chad Hult is certainly aware of the math.
There was nothing easy about telling his team, and his seniors, that at least 10 percent of the season had just been ripped away when the Mustangs learned they would not be hosting Hallsville on September 18.
“A lot of them were worried about losing more time than that. We just tried to break it down to them, ‘Hey, it is just one week,’ but the good news is now they are extra excited to come back and get back on the field,” the coach stated.
Eldon’s coronavirus concerns stemmed from a junior varsity game where social distancing could not be maintained in the middle of a huddle. With some players in quarantine, the Mustangs had 18 players who could continue to practice during the past week and Hult said the routine got to change a little bit.
“We got to have some fun, catch back up and do the things we enjoy on the football field instead of just game plan and rep, rep, rep stuff. At the same time, you feel bad because you are missing those kids who were not able to be here so it was a mixed bag of everything last week,” the coach noted.
For Eldon senior Fisher Snelling, football has been a brotherhood as he noted the fact he has come out with the same players each day for the past four years ready to work and get better. Missing any kind of game time was unimaginable and something he does not wish to see happen again.
“It is heartbreaking. We all just want to get out there and play so seeing it taken away for even just a week is terrible,” the senior stated.
“Never take anything for granted because you never know when it can be stripped from you.”
Hult said the team continues to follow all the protocols it is supposed to and everyone involved knows the rules and what it will take to continue fighting on and enjoy the rest of the year. With practice now back in full swing preparing for a game at Southern Boone on Friday, the coach is pleased with the attitude he has seen so far in the return.
“It has been very good because we’ve preached to them all along it is one call away from being that phone call and until it actually happens, they are high school kids and live in the moment,” he said of the overall mood. “So, now everyone is back and there is a lot of excitement around. They miss their friends, miss being around and doing things they enjoy so it has really been a good week so far.”
Moving forward, Hult is hoping the team continues with the mindset that any day can be the last after the week the Mustangs just faced.
“When that phone call comes there is nothing you can do about it, nothing I can do about it or any of us can do about it,” he said of the the threat the virus continues to present.
“We got lucky it was one week. Now, they come back with all that excitement and realize that at any given moment it can be gone.”