PADUCAH, Ky. — It is an old coaches’ cliché, but in a year where a pandemic has been the unwanted star of everything, it rings especially true.
“Play every game like it’s your last” is the motto at McCracken County High School, where on Friday night, the Mustangs’ football team improved to 3-0 with a 45-21 win over Owensboro Apollo behind three touchdowns from Jeremiah Hughes.
“We’ve played three games,” said athletic director Geno Miller. “That’s three more games than I thought we’d play.”
How McCracken County — and other high schools in the Commonwealth — are playing these games is a story of discipline, denial and determination. Forget Patches O’Houlihan in Dodgeball. These three Ds are ruling the athletic year in Kentucky.
While Illinois is waiting to play football until late winter and early spring, the Bluegrass folks have gone all gas, no brakes. Sure, there are adaptations, but once the ball is teed up, it’s football as usual.
‘Give us a chance’
Marc Clark is in his fourth season as the Mustangs’ coach after a stint at Hopkinsville, just a long punt away from Fort Campbell. Clark is the chairman of the Kentucky Football Coaches Association and, by nature, an eternal optimist.
His sunny side up philosophy to life was tested this spring as COVID-19 went undefeated against every sport possible.
“It was difficult to focus on the task at hand with all the negatives, but we are rule followers,” Clark said Thursday night. “We didn’t want to have football at any cost. We wanted to maintain safety for the vulnerable and the immune-compromised.
“But all along, I felt like we were going to get to the light at the end of the tunnel. I appreciate Kentucky high school officials giving us a chance. This is a week-to-week deal; we are crossing our fingers.”
While Indiana started its season on time and Missouri waited an extra week before opening its season, Kentucky waited until Labor Day before beginning athletic competition. Gov. Andy Beshear permitted football games to start on September 11, three weeks later than originally scheduled.
The extra time gave McCracken County and other schools in the state an opportunity to finalize plans — and figure out all the Plan Bs, Cs and Ds needed when tweaks are required.
“One thing to our benefit is that Geno and our administration are really good,” Clark said. “Our coaching staff does a good job getting a plan together. We just try to implement our best practices.”
‘The only time it seems halfway normal’
As is the case in Missouri, players must answer a daily survey and submit to temperature checks before they can practice. Coaches do their best to be sticklers to emphasize social distancing when possible, although the nature of football makes it difficult at times.
Clark and his staff must wear masks on the sideline. Although capacity in the Mustangs’ 8,500-seat stadium has been reduced to 1,100, the fans still crank up the noise. Hearing instructions through a coach’s mask isn’t always easy.
“There’s obviously some things that are different in standard operating procedures — how you do water, navigating through calling plays with a mask on — but whatever it takes to give us a chance to play,” Clark said.
McCracken County got some help from Prairie Farms in the water department. The folks known for their milk donated 100 crates to the athletic department, allowing each player personal water containers. They are lined up in numerical order from one 10-yard line to the other.
The different conditions clearly haven’t affected the Mustangs. They registered blowout wins in their first two games, including one over perennial Class 2A power Mayfield. So far, they have displayed added focus in trying circumstances.
“It’s a little bit different up until kickoff, and that’s the only time it seems halfway normal,” Clark said.
‘There was some risk’
Asked what he would do if he were in Illinois and had to wait another five months before playing a football game, Miller offered a measured answer.
“I know the folks up there made what they felt was the best decision possible to give their student-athletes the best chance at a full season,” he said. “I’ll be honest, I wondered sometimes if we were doing the right thing playing in the fall.
“I do trust the decision-makers here are doing what they feel is right. I thought there was some risk in playing this fall, but so far, I think we’ve done a good job following the protocols.”
The crowd of about 550 hooted and hollered like any crowd on any Friday night, roasting the refs for calls against the home team and ringing enough cowbells to make one think they were in Starkville instead of western Kentucky.
As he talked about what the season means to him, Clark referred to a picture in his office that gave him inspiration when the coronavirus was dominating the spring.
“It was from a Georgia Tech game in 1918 when we were going through the Spanish flu and people were wearing masks in the crowd,” he said.
“I figured if they could find a way to have college football in 1918, they could have high school football in 2020.”
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