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Back to work: For Oxford, start of summer workouts brings touch of normalcy amid anything but normalcy

Oxford football

Oxford's football team went through a workout Monday, June 1.

OXFORD — Monday’s first day for high school summer workouts in Alabama came with deep planning, deep thinking and at least two worrisome societal backdrops.

Came, workouts did, however.

So, there’s that.

“It felt great,” senior Oxford offensive lineman Brandon Kirksey said. “It felt great just being around the boys, just working together as a team.”

Monday marked the first day for the Alabama High School Athletic Association to allow team activities since suspending spring-sports play in mid-March, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some schools, including defending Class 6A champion Oxford, had workouts Monday. Count Wellborn, Jacksonville and Piedmont among schools that will start later this month, opting not to hasten their planned start of workouts after last week’s AHSAA announcement that workouts could start as early as June 1.

Coaches and teams have so much to address, way beyond getting athletes in shape and playing catchup after a spring with no practice.

Workouts come as protests and riots in several large cities permeate national and state news coverage. This came in the aftermath of African American George Floyd’s May 25 death at the hands of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Most high school football teams have a mix of black and white players, and Oxford coach Keith Etheredge said he plans to address Floyd’s death and the aftermath with his team.

“As a coach and a teacher, it’s funny, I’ve never really looked at colors,” Etheredge said. “If I’m coaching an athlete, he’s an athlete. I don’t care if he’s black, white, green. It don’t matter to me.

“If I’m teaching a kid in class, I’m teaching that kid. I don’t care to me what his background is, where he comes from, what color he is, and that’s what we’ll talk about here.”

That covers the new elephant in the room. There’s also the elephant that won’t leave.

The pandemic continues, and Alabama saw a jump in cases last week. The Alabama Department of Public Health on Monday reported 18,020 laboratory-confirmed cases and 644 deaths.

This comes as Alabama and other states around the country reopen businesses.

The AHSAA’s resumption of activities is no guarantee that fall sports will start on schedule or play out at all. A spike in COVID-19 cases could cause another quarantine that carries into the fall.

Oxford athletics director Larry Davidson summarized the stakes bluntly while speaking during the Yellow Jackets’ team meeting, before Monday’s workout. Talking to a group spread across one upper-deck side of the school’s gymnasium, he urged social distancing.

“The thing about what we’re having to do about social distancing, if we do not go by the guidelines, we will be shut down,” he said. “You know what that does? It puts you behind. …

“If somebody comes down and tests positive, there’s a shutdown. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there, but what you do now — keep your mask on, keep your social distancing, keep sanitizing and all of the things that you control.”

For coaches who don’t want to see a delay of cancellation or the season, this year’s pandemic-related guidelines mean headaches in planning. They have to keep group sizes limited to assure social distancing.

If necessary, they rearrange weight rooms and set up drills with social distancing.

Because Oxford’s players didn’t yet have masks, the Yellow Jackets stayed out of the weight room Monday. When they take to the weight room, they’ll have to pump disinfectants as much as iron.

Oxford also has a fogger to help sanitize the room between groups.

Monday’s workout saw the Yellow Jackets dispersed among four stations in and around Lamar Field. They did footwork, agility and conditioning drills.

One ladder drill, overseen by offensive coordinator Will Wagnon, included a cone set up about 15 feet beyond the end of the ladder. Once players completed chopping their feet through the ladder, they sprinted to the cone to assure distancing from the next player chopping through the ladder.

It was all necessary, Etheredge said, but distancing left something missing from the feel of workouts that come under normal circumstances.

“When you’re working out and doing conditioning and doing team bonding stuff, the kids are close,” he said. “It’s just got everything spread out now, with the social distancing. …

“As a football team, you like your guys being tight and getting each other excited about being here, a bunch of chest bumping and fist bumping and stuff like that. You’ve sort of got to watch that stuff now and keep them spread out.”

Another hiccup included excused absences. Missing Monday were all-state wide receiver Roc Taylor and assistant coach Justin Bowen, all on vacations scheduled before the AHSAA OKed the June 1 start for workouts.

All awkwardness aside, team activities were just that … team activities. After quarantine nixed spring practice, players enjoyed something resembling normalcy.

“It feels good,” senior quarterback Trey Higgins said. “At one point, everybody was like, they don’t even know if we’re going to have a season.

“For us to get back, now that we’ve got that title to defend, it feels good to get started.”

Sports Writer Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter: @jmedley_star.

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