HJ - Neihart Summer Workouts

Jessalee Neihart is hopeful her senior season on the volleyball court is a good one for co-head coaches Macy Elwood and Kaitlin Allen. Niehart seen here on an attack during a 2019 win over Shenandoah. (Photo by Joe Moore for Page County Newspapers)

Iowa’s high school state softball and baseball tournaments are taking place this week as the first season of school-sanctioned sports in the country wraps up since in-person schooling shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the softball and baseball players in the state were allowed to begin official practices June 1, other sports had to wait another month.

Coach/player contact for non-summer sports is allowed during the summer and many athletes choose to spend much of the summer practicing for multiple sports and improving in the weight room. Those activities weren’t allowed to resume until July 1 this year and area coaches have been taking the last few weeks working with athletes to get better while also trying to make up for lost time.

Coaches and weight room instructors have also had to deal with COVID-19 restrictions. Collin Bevins is the head football and wrestling coach at Clarinda and also the well being coach for the district, designing many of the workouts being implemented during the summer weights sessions. He said the big change this summer has been splitting the big groups coming in into smaller sections.

“We can’t have groups of more than 20 kids,” said Bevins. “So, if we have a group of 38 come in we’ll split them up. I’ll take 20 to the weight room with me, and then 18 will go in the commons with Logan Wood and James Hash for warmups, body mobility and they’ll also do band exercises. The kids are getting all the lifts and exercises in, just not all in the weight room.”

Bevins said weight room sessions are open for 7-12 grade students and they are averaging 75-80 coming in to work out. Besides having multiple sessions in a day, the athletes are being split up into even smaller groups once they enter the weight room.

“We have four stations,” said Bevins. “We’ll go through supersets at each station and once everyone is done we’ll rotate to the next one. We have racks on each side of the weight room, dumbbells in the middle and then boxes opposite those. When we’re done with each station, we’ll jog down the hallway and switch spots with the other half.”

Ty Ratliff is the head coach of the football and track and field programs at Shenandoah as well as running the weight room workouts. The workouts in Shenandoah run quite similar to how they do in Clarinda.

“We came up with five different lifting groups to space out the kids,” said Ratliff. “We have a few extra protocols with attendance, such as taking temperatures and applying hand sanitizer before and after using the weights. There is a ton of extra cleaning done after each session. The kids have adapted to the circumstances and made the best of it.”

Ratliff estimates about 50 high school athletes coming to work out on a regular basis, and they are split into groups of 10.

Both Shenandoah and Clarinda have a first-year head coach taking over one of their basketball programs. A program’s first year with a new coach always brings change and that has been amplified this year with health and safety restrictions and a limited summer schedule.

Jay Soderberg is the new boys basketball coach at Shenandoah. He was an assistant last year and before that was the head girls coach at Essex for several years. He said they have had 12-15 kids coming in on a regular basis.

“We have been going a couple times a week,” said Soderberg. “We check temperatures as the kids come in and have bottles of hand sanitizer for use on the way in and out. After that we’re using Clorox wipes on all the basketballs and benches and anything else being touched.”

Basketball, like in the weight room, has seen the team split into groups with limited interaction between groups. He said the groups are starting to mingle some now that they are getting some full court work in.

Soderberg would have liked to take his team to a camp this summer, but said it just didn’t make sense with the current conditions.

“I haven’t heard if anyone else in the conference is doing scrimmages or summer leagues,” said Soderberg, “but we’re just staying in-house with our own players.”

Shenandoah coaches also have to deal with limited gym space this summer. The high school gym is currently unavailable for practices because of building renovations, so Soderberg’s team has had to split gym time at the middle school building with the volleyball and girls basketball programs.

Conner Hanafan is ready for his first year as a teacher and coach and is the new head girls basketball coach in Clarinda. His group has come in for open gyms on Mondays and Wednesdays since the start of the month with about 25 in attendance.

“We break them up into groups,” said Hanafan, “and have opened it up to 7-12 grades to get more girls in and start skill development a little younger. The first month has been a dramatic change in some areas with the culture and they have done an awesome job accepting me as a new coach and our assistants. They have done an amazing job and have bought in right away.”

While working on improving the program as a new head coach, Hanafan said giving the girls some kind of normalcy has been another great benefit to this month’s workouts.

“I have told the girls to be grateful we get to do this,” said Hanafan. “There was a time we weren’t sure if we would be able to, but the girls love it. It’s not always easy, but they understand that feeling of normalcy is going a long ways for them and they have done a fantastic job.”

Macy Elwood and Kaitlin Allen return to coach Clarinda volleyball this fall. Elwood said they have had anywhere from 20-40 high school and junior high students in for open gyms and are starting to hit their stride.

“The first few days were a struggle,” said Elwood. “I think some girls were a little apprehensive about coming back, but we have had quite a few more girls in and they are starting to get back into the swing of things.”

Elwood has split her athletes into groups as well, and tried to limit the interaction between groups. They also had a coach from Peru State College come over and work with the girls for a couple days.

“They aren’t able to have contact with their athletes (at Peru),” said Elwood, “so they came over and worked with our athletes. It was nice to have a little different expertise for the girls. We wore masks during that and it was a good experience for our team.”

The sport with probably the least amount of concerns entering the fall season is cross country. Liz Skillern coaches the Shenandoah girls and although she couldn’t have contact with her team until July 1, the workouts started prior to that date.

“They went ahead and there were three girls running together in May several days a week,” said Skillern, “and then in June there were five or six girls running. Since July 1 we have had anywhere from three to seven girls show up. I’m not going to have a big team, maybe 10, but they are good quality athletes.”

Skillern said the only restriction cross country coaches have been given is limiting the running groups to 10 people, which hasn’t affected her.

Bevins said there have been about 16 kids coming in for open mat on a regular basis while both Bevins and Ratliff have had their football teams in for work as well.

Ratliff said they have split groups up between the coaches and there has been no contact between the athletes so far.

How to play football during a global pandemic is a concern though. There is contact and lots of it between athletes. Ratliff said his group will continue to work and he is hopeful for some sort of season.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” said Ratliff. “Baseball went through and there were a few hiccups, but I think if everybody does their part and follows protocols and does all they can to keep coaches, kids and fans safe, then hopefully we can have a season in some capacity.”

The consensus from coaches in being asked about their concern level for their upcoming season was the unknown of it. Guidance will come from the Iowa High School Athletic Association and Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union prior to the Aug. 10 first day of practice in each sport, but even with guidance, there will still be plenty of unknown.

Elwood said her team will do whatever they have to do to get a full season in.

“There are nerves that come from the unknown,” said Elwood. “We don’t know what the season will look like. We’ll start on time and we’ll play our schedule, but after that I don’t know what precautions there will be other than what we have already been doing. I’m just hopeful for a full season. It doesn’t matter what the precautions are. We’ll follow them if we can get a full season in.”

There aren’t as many concerns for cross country as for football or volleyball, but Skillern said that unknown is concerning.

“I just hope cross country isn’t lumped in with football,” said Skillern, “and someone says if we’re not doing football, we’re not doing cross country because they aren’t the same. I’m concerned about a lack of input from cross country coaches and the inconsistency of not knowing what’s going on from one day to the next.”

Skillern said the biggest concern is losing the season, like they did in the spring.

While fall sports begin practice soon, winter sports still have some time. Hanafan said his group will continue to work unless told differently.

“There is that unsureness,” said Hanafan. “Hopefully by the time basketball starts, we’ll have this figured out a little more. I tell the girls decisions like this are above our heads, so we’re going to keep preparing and getting better.”

Soderberg said one of his athletes asked him recently his thoughts on what the season may look like.

“I said the way things are going I don’t think it will look like a normal basketball season,” said Soderberg. “What you’re used to seeing, I don’t see that happening. I hope I’m wrong. I have heard different ideas of what it may look like, but nobody knows right now and that’s what I’m nervous about.”

Whatever happens with sports for the fall season and beyond, Ratliff said the kids continue to be resilient and want to compete.

“They have done a tremendous job getting in and being accountable for everything going on,” said Ratliff. “That’s what makes our school great, the kids are committed. We talked at football from our experience in track that you never know when your last competition might be if you’re a senior. Don’t take any day for granted and make the best of each opportunity to make yourself, your team and your school better.”

Fall practice is scheduled to begin Monday, Aug. 10 for cross country, football and volleyball. Competitions can begin in cross country and volleyball Aug. 24 and in football Aug. 27.

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