DECATUR — Although football practices that feature plays and footballs have only just begun, LSA football coach Jordan Hopman has an eye on the end of the season at the same time.
Hopman has finally been able to train his players in the difference they will face in moving from IHSA 11-man football to 8-man football for the first time this season. But the news that the IHSA would defer to the Illinois Department of Health, the Illinois State Board of Education and the Governor's Office on all of its "Return to Play" guidelines has him worried the season could end anytime.
"We are following the state guidelines now that the IHSA has sort of given up control (to the state), but we are just trying to give these kids a chance to play," he said. "I think that that is most important thing. Whether we get to play games is not up to me and I'm awfully glad that I don't need to make that decision because it is a tough decision to make.
"I think the IHSA did the best job that they could have done in this situation that we have, but we are going to play and enjoy ourselves until they say we can't play.
"That's goes for the rest of 8-man football, too. We are going to go ahead a follow whatever the state says and we are not going to go rogue and play football when they tell us not to."
With the possibility that the seniors may not get to compete this season, the Lions are holding their senior "carry off" ceremony at practice instead.
"It is a tradition that I have been looking forward to since I was a freshman and I'm glad that we are still carrying on that tradition," senior wingback Clayton McCoy said. "We will go about halfway on the field and a senior picks three people that normally carry you off the field. With the virus, we will do it off the golf cart, so it is the same concept but without any contact."
Hopman hopes to be able to repeat the ceremony at the end of the regular season in November.
"It was something we have done since coach (Craig) Bundy has been here and we have four seniors wearing our black game jerseys because I wanted to be sure that they get to wear them at least once in case we get shut down," Hopman said. "We will do it again at the end of the season if we have a season. It is a cool thing and a rite of passage, even for the younger guys to get involved with the senior sendoff."
The 24-player roster of the Lions has a mixture of experienced seniors and athletes new to the sport who were inspired by the move to 8-man football.
"We have several kids who have never played football before and so you have to do a lot of review and move those younger kids up slowly," Hopman said. "Right now (in practice) we can't block each other and we can't tackle, so we are installing what we can so when we get that go-ahead to say you can practice and tackle, we will have the basics done and we can hit the ground running."
One new arrival on the team is Bella Hunt, a freshman joining the team from the Mount Pulaski co-op.
"She has been awesome and has been to every workout," Hopman said. She's very much a part of the team and doesn't ask for a special concession of any sort and it has been a really positive experience so far. She's not a player that says she just wants to kick and so right now she is working at running back."
The differences between 8-man and 11-man football are becoming clear for the team, including a much smaller playing field that is 40 yards wide compared to 53 1/3 on a standard field.
"The first thing we did was walk out to the middle of the field and you stand there and it feels like you can reach out and touch both sidelines with your arms," Hopman said. "It has been a learning experience but really it is blocking, it is tackling and it is running with the football. Everything is the same, and if you can do that you are going to be successful."
McCoy had some doubts initially about the transition to the new game and hopes he'll be able to play out his senior season.
"At first, I was really skeptical because I have only played regular 11-man football my entire life and then in my senior year to change to something completely different that I haven't played before was a bitter pill to swallow," he said. "But now I look at it that hopefully this will be able to push our program a little further once I am gone so if it helps us gain numbers and have a bigger team then I'm OK with it.
"I have been really excited to get back out on the field and get a chance to play some football again. I was really nervous with the whole coronavirus that my senior year was going to get taken away from me. Fingers crossed, I'm hoping for the best."
Senior guard Logan Hunt is thrilled to practice and play, no matter the conditions.
"Some of the freshman might not be as excited since they haven't been able to play for three years and then their fourth year could be taken away," he said. "I'm very excited and I'm not complaining about practices and no matter the heat I will be read to play. If we aren't able to play the season, I don't know what I'll do."
Hopman said the weeks of strength and conditioning workouts helped his team and hopes the Lions will be able to do more soon.
"I think the conditioning workouts helped immensely in getting kids back into the routine of coming here and getting ready to go. I think it made them a little hungry and excited them that we were progressing in a positive way," he said. "We want them to remain positive and enjoy (practice) because we don't know when the state might shut us down. We have had 100% percent attendance at practices and I think that speaks volumes because they are excited to be out here."
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Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten