Richie Wessman came to Napa High School last year to improve its football program.
He teaches physical education, too. But as a former high school, college and NFL coach who brought Grizzly Football back to life last fall after a winless 2018 season, he would like to see Napa High keep improving.
But with the Napa Valley Unified School District approving an instruction plan Thursday that keeps students taking classes at home indefinitely starting Aug. 20 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and keeps sports off campus as well, playing football after the New Year is looking more likely.
That doesn’t appeal to Wessman too much.
“If you start a season in January, like I know some people are talking about doing, and then two months later they’re starting another season, physiologically that’s not healthy for them,” he said. “That’s not good for their development, their growth, their soft tissues. You get into January and what you don’t realize is that we don’t have lights on our practice field. Vintage doesn’t, either. So we would be able to have only a 45-minute to an hour practice before it gets dark. I don’t know how you prepare for a football game having that short of a practice.”
With it being such a big state, Wessman is hoping the California Interscholastic Federation lets leagues decide what schedule is best for them individually when it makes an announcement Monday about when or if each sport can expect to have playoffs.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if CIF came out with something non-committal and kicked it back to schools and their districts and their leagues,” he said. “I could see them just having a league season. Just play your league games and have a league champion and that’s it for the year. That wouldn’t shock me. If you’re going to wait until everybody in the whole section can go, we might not have a season.
“Football is a high-risk sport, just the nature of it. Every high school I’ve ever been a part of you see this happen where you play an opponent who, the week before you play them, they got sick from opponents that they’ve played, and then they get your team sick, and then you get your next opponent sick, and they get their next one sick.
“It’s going to be a challenge, whatever happens. But we’re going to rise to the occasion if we get the opportunity to play, put something together and have fun and make a good season of it. The kids have all been hungry because they want to take this program to the next level.”
After going 0-10 in 2018, Wessman came in and guided the Grizzlies to a second-place record of 4-2 in the Vine Valley Athletic League and 7-4 overall with a playoff berth.
“We came out and had a very good year,” he said, “but we want to have a great year. We were 7-3 in the regular season, but in all three losses one play could have changed the football game. So we all want to get over that hump and really do something special. Our guys are hungry, not only because they miss football but because we really want to take that next step. So there’s a lot of guys who have stepped up and become leaders on the football team and it’s really exciting to see and hopefully we’ll be able to reap the fruit of the hard work and get to a season sometime soon and see that next step unfold.”
The Grizzlies have been holding voluntary summer workouts at their campus field since June 24. If the football season is delayed until January, Wessman doesn’t know if those workouts can continue if classes aren’t held on campus.
“You want to build that chemistry, that camaraderie on the team, and have a lot of fun getting out there working and getting prepared. Everyone wants to have a season and it’s a matter of when and if it’s possible and if it does happen I think it’ll probably be something that happens on short notice, so being able to stay ready and keeping the guys motivated and interested is an important part of it.”
No contact or footballs are allowed, players work out at least 6 feet from each other in “pods” (groups) of 10 players or fewer who all play the same position, with no more than three pods on the field at a time.
“We’re working on our stance and our start and our technique and drills that are position-specific so we can keep growing as football players and be ready to go,” Wessman said, adding that a few plays have been discussed, too. “We’ve been focusing on (plays) just a little tidbit here and there to kinda keep it fresh in their minds.
“We do a little core work, a little body weight stuff, push ups and air squats – whatever we can do to build up strength, build up core, work on a little football IQ, a little technique, stance and start, things like that. We’re just really focused on when we can get back to football full-time and being ready to hit the ground at light speed.”
Wessman said about 140 students expressed an interest in playing varsity, JV or freshman football this year, but about half that have been to the summer workouts. Some are on vacation outside the country and others’ parents don’t want them to risk getting the coronavirus.
“Keeping everyone safe is the priority,” he said. “We haven’t seen too much spitting, but some days you have to remind them to social distance just because they’re kids and they gravitate toward one another and they’re used to being close and talking. But they’ve been great. They’ve followed all the rules. They wear their masks to and from practice like they’re supposed to and they’ve really taken everything to heart and done a great job — the kids and the coaches.
“We were allowed to start on a Monday (June 22), but we didn’t actually get on the field until that Wednesday because we wanted to make sure everything was lined up and proper and everyone was on the same page. The way it was unveiled was kinda last-minute and so to try to get all the people – the parents, the kids, the coaches — organized and on the same page, we just wanted to focus on doing it right. So when we came out, we’ve been consistent with how we’ve been doing things from that point.
“We’re just making sure we’re ready for the next phase. I’ve got a lot of contingency plans in place to make sure all the coaches and the players are all prepared to play and to play well. But before we set up anything, we’re just going to make sure we have a clear understanding of what it is we’re preparing for, and when we’re preparing for it.”
If the CIF will move less-contact sports such as cross country, golf and swimming to the fall, as many colleges may do, the football players who go out for those sports won’t even be thinking about football this fall.
“But I don’t see any of that happening when we’re not in school (on campus),” Wessman said. “I think we’re going to have to be in school for a while before even having a dialogue that a season is something we can do. It’s crazy. You feel bad for the seniors.”
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