The Lynden football team, as well as other fall sports teams in the Northwest Conference, can practice in small groups to the end of November as part of the allowable coaching period set by the WIAA. (Hailey Palmer/Lynden Tribune)

In pods of five people, turnout is a welcome hint of normalcy 

WHATCOM ­— In the upset world of prep sports, this feels like a welcome dose of some normalcy.

Fall sports have been pushed to spring, but until Nov. 30 teams and coaches are allowed up to 20 practices, with COVID-19 regulations in place. This allowable coaching period for WIAA Season 3 sports started last week.

The coaching period is meant to mirror one that usually occurs during summer for fall sports.

For football, 10 of those 20 practices can have full contact in pads. However, coaches and players can only gather in pods of five at a time. 

Lynden football coach Blake VanDalen said the hope is the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association allows pods of 10 soon, but the excitement is there for finally being able to see players in person. 

Since football season ended last December, VanDalen hasn’t seen most of the players on his team, nor his coaching staff. 

“The reason I coach and the reason I do this is to have an impact on kids’ lives,” VanDalen said. “For the last six months, I’ve only been able to look at students through a computer screen. The human aspect is just off the charts as far as how much that means to me and hopefully how much that means to the kids.”

The plan for this stretch of time is to work in pods of players by position group. Linemen will be in one pod, wide receivers in their own and quarterbacks and running backs in another. VanDalen said that’s basically all that can be done within the rules set by the WIAA. 

However, it allows the coaching staff to be more in-depth with players in their pod than would have been possible previously. 

“Oftentimes, we’re throwing the whole thing at them, hoping they get most of it and then we fix the pieces they don’t get,” VanDalen said. “Now, with what we’re calling a ‘slow roll,’ we’ll be able to introduce things one at a time in much more detail.”

VanDalen added that while coaches aren’t doing things in the typical way, this coaching period is giving the players eight more practices than they usually get in the summer.

Coaches distributed helmets and gear last week to actually start workouts this week. 

“It just felt good to get that phase done,” VanDalen said of handing out gear. “Plus, it gave us a chance to practice all of our COVID protocol on how to check kids in, so they understand how the rules work.”

Like many coaches, VanDalen communicated with his team during the offseason through Zoom meetings. WIAA restrictions prevented him from actually coaching, but he encouraged his team to not slack off. 

“The kids would go out in their friend groups and do stuff on their own,” he said. “I know they were working hard.”

Other teams in the Northwest Conference have hit the field as well. Practices for football after this 20-session period are set to resume in February 2021. 

The move of fall sports to spring gives some student athletes a unique opportunity in terms of their competition calendar. 

“It’s a bizarre format where we can hopefully go on a playoff run in April or May and then turn around and hopefully do it again in November, twice in one year,” VanDalen said. “Some of these juniors, they’re going to get to play a ton of football this year.”

The same would apply to other fall sports should the athletic schedule return to normal next school year, 2021-22.