Navigating the delta variant: Despite COVID-19 challenges programs march on

West Port’s coach Paul Gleason talks with Kamila Morales (11) on the sideline as they play Vanguard during a soccer match at Booster Stadium in Ocala on Jan. 12, 2012. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
In 2020, local prep sports teams lost games and, in some cases, entire seasons to COVID-19.

With the delta variant causing a spike in new cases during the summer, concern was mounting that high school athletics would yet again face an uncertain fall.

But local programs have adapted.

Despite some challenges early on, both public and private schools have kept the ball moving.

Jody Phillips, program specialist for Marion County Public Schools, said faculty and staff have been integral in the mitigation plans since schools opened in early August.

“We have seen really solid results in our programs,” said Phillips, “Not to say that we didn’t have a couple of speed bumps along the way.”

The speed bumps Phillips referred to include the cancellation of several games during the first two weeks of the season.

The Aug. 27 game between Dunnellon and St. Augustine was cancelled due to COVID-19, as was the game between Lake Weir and Palatka.

Trinity Catholic, a private high school, canceled its football game scheduled for Aug. 27 against visiting Buchholz due to too many players being in quarantine protocols.

Dunnellon ended up playing Buchholz that week.

At least a dozen other games across the state were canceled due to COVID-19 worries that week.

North Marion canceled its game on Sept. 3 for similar reasons. Since then, however, Marion County teams have played as scheduled.

“We did lose a couple of football games,” Phillips said. “We certainly had some students have to quarantine and a team or two here or there lose some days of practice. But truly, that’s been kind of the anomaly.”

Phillips said that since those early cases, each program has been operating at full strength. He also said he communicates with each athletic director from all seven of Marion County’s public schools daily.

“I’m pretty in tune with everything that’s going on. We’ve just been very blessed and fortunate because of our coaches—and because of the kids,” he said. “These programs have done great with [managing the delta variant]. And I think a lot of that can be attributed to the awareness that came from last year.”

Schools have continually encouraged students to wash their hands and not share towels or water bottles, as well as properly clean equipment in the weight rooms.

“The kids have bought into this stuff,” said Phillips. “And I think that everything that we have learned, the kids have learned too.”

Allison Forsyth-Abney, Ocala Christian Academy athletic director said the private school also had some challenges early on.

“We had a cancellation almost every day with teams who were affected by COVID-19,” Forsyth-Abney said of the start of the fall season. “But now that we’ve been playing for almost a full month, cancellations have slowed down.”

Of the seven teams currently participating in fall sports at OCA, Forsyth-Abney said, only girls’ volleyball has had to significantly restructure its schedule.

“I believe every school is trying to put together the best [sports programs] they can for their student-athletes,” she said. “I am sure things are different for small private schools, compared to the larger public schools.”

Donald Tucker, Forest High School’s athletic director, said no teams at Forest have canceled any games.

“Basically, what we have been doing is everything that we were doing last year,” said Tucker. “We started doing it over the summer and continued into the school year. We haven’t really changed anything that we’ve done since we’ve started with COVID, and it’s paid off so far.”

Tucker added, “We’re blessed that everyone is doing the right things right now and we’re just plugging along.”

Lyle Livengood, West Port High School athletic director, had trouble fielding a football team in late July, he said, but has had no issues since.

“I am just keeping my fingers crossed [that it stays that way],” he said.

Phillips made his thoughts clear when it comes to the importance of providing students with the option of participating in prep sports.

“I think it’s a disservice to the students if we don’t work as hard as we can to provide them these seasons,” said Phillips. “That’s just a statement I believe in. We owe it to these students to give it our best shot—and so far, we are succeeding.”

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