GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In the fall of 2020, every whistle, lap run or pads clicking felt like a blessing.
Coronavirus put a feeling in the air every day to high school sports all over the state of Michigan in a wonder on if they would get to compete day in and out.
Since the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and many parts of the United States began to open back up in late spring and early summer, high school sports have been able to start up for fall preparation with a more normal feeling.
There are no mask requirements currently, fans are expected to be let back in the stands at normal capacity rules and there doesn’t appear to be any odd stoppages in the middle of the season.
High school football, for example, had to finish its season in January after cases began to rise on the COVID-19 front in 2020.
Yet, with the delta variant of COVID-19 beginning to make its way across the country, Hudsonville head coach Brent Sandee is still preparing his team with a similar mindset to a year ago.
“Last year, you just took it day by day and that’s the approach this year too, regardless of the situation,” Sandee said. “We get the chance to practice football today, we take advantage of it. Right now, the kids haven’t had to think about it as much, which is nice.”
Until late in the season in 2020, there was never much more than parents or seniors in the stands at football games. After the second pause in the season during the playoffs, only parents and limited students were allowed into the stands with masks and seating charts following the resumption of play.
For the senior class, it felt like they lost some of the experience of their final season as a high school athlete.
Current Grand Rapids Catholic Central senior John Passinault helped the Cougars win their fourth state championship in the last five years in 2020. He said even having crowds alone this season will be a much different experience for a lot of the players on his team, not to mention opening the season at the Big House against Saline.
“It’s our first game back and it’s going to be a completely different environment,” Passinault said. “Most of (my teammates) had their first season with COVID and everything, so this will be different for them. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
The Cougars won’t be the only team with plenty of new players looking to start for the first time on a varsity roster.
For any juniors that have now turned senior, this will be a completely new stadium experience with full student sections and packed crowds.
Mona Shores senior Elijah Johnson was also on a state championship squad with the Sailors in 2020. He says that these early weeks of practice in August are much easier with less distractions from a season ago.
“It’s like a burden off of our shoulders,” Johnson said. “It feels good to just be able to put the pads on and put everything full blow.”
Another major concern a season ago when football and other sports looked like it could be canceled was the mental health of the athletes.
After spending the years of their younger lives preparing to play their sport at the varsity level, getting it taken away due to a virus was hard to accept for some players.
Mona Shores head coach Matt Koziak couldn’t be happier to see how good his players feel every day to be around each other again and playing the game with more normalcy.
“For me personally, I just missed being around these kids every day,” Koziak said. “So far, there’s less hoops to jump through and hopefully it stays that course. I really admire what those young people had to go through last year with the on and off testing and so forth. Hopefully, this year we can feel it’s more business as usual.”
The high school football season in West Michigan kicks off Thursday for most teams in the area, with some playing on Friday.
As of right now, it appears the Friday night lights will be back on as usual.
For Hudsonville senior Dylan Ham, he can’t wait to take the field to what he watched growing up: A full house.
“I’m just ready to get out there and hit somebody in front of our fans,” Ham said. “Last year was such an inconvenience not being able to get out there right away but this year, it feels good to just get out there and go.”