SIDNEY — Opening night is always exciting for high school football teams. With all the uncertainty the COVID-19 pandemic brought this spring and summer, the excitement for players might be at an all-time high when teams kick off around the state on Friday.
All area high school football teams will kick off the season on Friday night, just 10 days after learning they would be allowed to play games this season.
Gov. Mike DeWine announced on Aug. 18 football and other contact sports would be allowed to compete. The Ohio Department of Health issued an order the following day officially allowing contact sports to compete for the first time since group gathering restrictions were put in place in March to prevent such activities.
“We’re really glad we’re going to get out on the football field and get to play,” Anna coach Nick Marino said. “We didn’t know for sure or not if it was going to happen. The kids are really excited to get the opportunity to play.”
Not all teams across Ohio will be playing Friday. The Ohio High School Athletic Association said in a release last week a little more than 60 of its member high schools aren’t playing due to those districts suspending extracurricular activities.
Most of the school districts that aren’t playing are larger school districts in or adjacent to major metropolitan areas, including Dayton Public Schools and Trotwood-Madison, which are the closest schools to Shelby County that aren’t playing.
In addition, the National Federation of State High School Associations reports 17 states (including Michigan) nationwide are not playing football this fall.
“We haven’t had too many problems with kids following safety protocols, but when we have and you remind them that they get a chance to play this game and a whole lot of other kids don’t have this opportunity, it’s pretty easy to get them reflect and be grateful and make sure they follow the guidelines,” Sidney coach Adam Doenges said.
There will be many noticeable changes at games this season. The Ohio Department of Health order mandates seating capacity at stadiums be limited to 15 percent of permanent seating and also calls for spectators to be physically distanced in the stands and to wear masks.
In addition, teams will be spaced out between the 10-yard lines on each side of the field as opposed to the 25-yard lines as normal. Players are supposed to wear masks when not playing and can’t share equipment or water bottles.
Other noticeable changes will be the frequent disinfecting of footballs by officiating crews, longer timeouts and breaks between quarters and a shorter halftime.
But Doenges said the most noticeable change for everyone in attendance will be the lack of noise compared to normal Friday nights.
“The home (team’s) band will be there at every game and that will provide some noise, but they can’t play all the time, and the crowd noise is going to be a lot less with the reduced capacity,” Doenges said. “… I’ve always enjoyed here in my 16 years that even in our bad years, we’ve always had really good crowds. People come out and support our kids. I think that noise thing and the extra empty seats are going to be what everyone notices.”
The season format is vastly different this season, as the OHSAA shortened the season by 13 weeks due to concerns of state government officials of a COVID-19 surge in early winter.
The association announced earlier this month it is shortening regular-season play to six weeks while opening the playoffs to every team and expanding postseason play to seven weeks. Teams will be able to opt out of postseason play if they wish and schedule additional regular season games, and teams can also play more regular season games after losing in the playoffs.
Sidney will play for the Little Brown Jug on Friday when it travels to Miami Valley League rival Greenville. The Yellow Jackets closed the season out at Greenville’s Harmon Field last year, where they lost 19-14 after a touchdown pass with 1:46 left.
It was one of four losses the Yellow Jackets suffered by eight points or less during a 3-7 campaign.
“That was not a good way for us to finish the season,” Doenges said. “We did not play very well. We came off the field with a sour taste in our mouths, and that was there the whole offseason.
“That’s normally our Week 10 game, so it’s nice we don’t have to wait that long to play for the Little Brown Jug again. We get to go right back at it. Our kids are excited for the challenge.
It’ll be the first time on the field for both squads; no MVL teams scrimmaged.
“In a normal year of doing two or three 7-on-7’s and two or three scrimmages, you’ve run into a dozen different teams by now,” Doenges said. “We’ve just gone against each other for the last three months. I would imagine both teams are going to be pretty excited to get out there, go against a different colored jersey and get after it a little bit.
Sidney returns the bulk of its roster from last season, including seven starters on offense. The Yellow Jackets return junior running back E.J. Davis, who led the 10-team MVL with 1,329 rushing yards.
Greenville finished 7-3 last year but lost most of its starters.
“It would be a lot easier if they didn’t lose so many guys to graduation so we’d have some kind of idea of what they have,” Doenges said. “We started looking at them and they’ve lost so many players at different positions, we really don’t know what they have player-wise.
“We think we know what they’re going to do (schematically), and I’m sure they feel the same about us. But when you lose so much, you might have to change what you do on offense or defense depending on the personnel you have. It’s going to be a lot of in-game adjustments by both teams on Friday.”
Anna will open the season against MAC rival Versailles. The Rockets are coming off a historic season that saw them finish 14-1 and win the Division VI state championship.
Anna returns just four starters from last year’s squad, and Marino said the focus has been on getting its many new starters ready.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces, but the kids have been working hard, and it’s been exciting to see them get out on the varsity field,” Marino said. “I think they’ve done a real nice job of preparing themselves so far.”
After DeWine’s announcement last week, Anna organized a scrimmage with Indian Lake, which was originally scheduled to host the teams’ regular-season opener before the OHSAA restructured the regular season earlier this month.
The Rockets are replacing every offensive position. Taking over at quarterback is junior Kholten Carey, who threw for three touchdowns and ran for a 45-yard TD in the team’s 25-16 victory over the Lakers.
Versailles is looking for a turnaround after a 3-7 campaign last year. The Tigers, which blasted Covington in a scrimmage last week, return seven starters on offense and defense. They will be led at quarterback by junior Carson Bey, who Marino said was impressive on film.
“They have a good-looking team,” Marino said. “Their quarterback is a pretty good runner and athlete, so we have to make sure we tackle him. They have a couple of nice receivers and a couple of nice backs in the backfield. It seems like in year two (under coach Ryan Jones), they’re clicking really well. So we’ve got to come out and play well.”
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.