Every high school football coach has had to deal with the challenges that come with playing during a pandemic.
Not every coach has to deal with a pandemic during his first year on the job.
K.B. Belton finds himself in such a position. The Out-of-Door Academy coach is busy getting his players ready for the Thunder's season-opening road game at 7 p.m. on Sept. 17 against Bradenton Christian (Update: The game has been postponed to Oct. 9).
Belton said the safety concerns have changed practice, such as setting up socially-distanced chairs in the film room or sanitizing equipment before and after every practice. Those things cut into the team's actual practice time.
That makes it harder to install new sections of the playbook, Belton said. Despite the overarching oddness of it all, he said, Belton is not taking his first camp as head coach for granted.
"It feels amazing to finally be out here," Belton said. "The boys have been excited every practice. There's been a great energy. It feels better than ever. With not being able to do much over the summer and all the delays with different counties, it was hard to find a rhythm. Ever since we got the full green light, it has been great. The learning that has taken place has been off the charts."
Belton said his Thunder squad will be led by its 10 seniors, including quarterback Tyler Beasley, who holds a scholarship offer from Tennessee. The 6-foot-1 Beasley threw for 10 touchdowns and ran for eight more in just nine games in 2019. Belton also pointed out defensive back/wide receiver Nolan Lewellen and tight end/safety Michael Carlton as seniors he expects to be leaders.
The Thunder will not quite be at full power in 2020. Belton said six players opted out of the season because of COVID-19 concerns, putting an already thin roster even thinner at just 27 players.
It's no wonder Belton identified staying healthy as his team's biggest key to the season. Except for Beasley and a few others, Thunder players are expected to contribute in all phases of the game. That can put stress on a team, but also showcase players that have multiple talents.
Belton said he expects one such player, freshman Charlie Tack, to make an immediate impact at running back and at linebacker. Though Tack is just 5-foot-8, Belton said coaches have been blown away by his ability.
The Thunder's game against Bradenton Christian is one of just five the team will play this season. Belton said the pandemic, plus the different starting timetables from different counties, made scheduling difficult. Though ODA plays most sports as part of the Florida High School Athletic Association, it plays football through the Sunshine State Athletic Association, limiting the number of potential opponents it could play.
That's OK with Belton, who said he has thrown out any type of win/loss record expectations for 2020.
"I just want them to have fun," Belton said. "I want them to bond together as a team, as young men. I want them to push through all this adversity they have. This season is all about development, on and off the field."
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.