Sprinting on the track and hopping on one leg around blue, yellow and orange cones on a practice field, 19 Thomas Johnson girls soccer players participated in voluntary workouts at the school on Thursday morning.
Many of the athletes wore blue or white TJ T-shirts with one word written across the back, “TOGETHER.”
Such team unity-oriented mottos are commonplace in high school athletics. But watching these Patriots players on Thursday, the word “together” seemed all-the-more meaningful and yet a little ironic.
Like other Frederick County Public Schools athletes who were allowed to begin participating in such workouts on Monday, these TJ girls thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to do any sort of activity together after being separated for months because of shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
But with the contagious virus continuing to spread throughout the country, the Patriots players — like others in the county doing workouts — had to take numerous steps to keep their distance from each other as they did drills.
The girls were separated into two pods so there wasn’t a crowd of bodies. Each had their own group of cones, spaced several feet apart, to run and hop around. They maintained space between each other while running on the track. There was plenty of grass between each athletic bag placed on the ground.
No hugs. No high-fives. And instead of a post-workout huddle, girls stood apart from themselves and coaches, who spoke to players after the 90-minute session.
Afterward, players shouted bye and waved while heading their separate ways after logging another group workout, in which they were mindful to keep distance from teammates.
“That’s definitely challenging because a lot of these girls I haven’t seen in awhile,” TJ freshman Ella Wilson said. “So I really just want to hug them and stuff. It’s different, but we’re all kind of adapting to it.”
An ability to adapt has been essential after the health crisis completely upended normal life, including high school athletics. If not for the virus, in fact, all Frederick County teams would be participating in regular workouts by now.
Still, TJ girls soccer players weren’t being picky on Thursday. They were thankful to participate in drills that provided some semblance of normalcy during what has turned out to be a topsy-turvy 2020.
“I’m really glad that we can finally come out,” Wilson said. “It’s been boring running at my house and stuff without people, and I’m just glad to be back and work hard.”
“I was excited because I was finally going to see everyone again, and I was going to be able to practice,” junior Alexis Gonzalez said.
That excitement, while understandable, is something coaches have to keep a vigilant eye on, lest players fail to maintain proper distance from each other.
In fact, while being interviewed Thursday, some players seemed poised to get closer to the masked reporter, who told them their voices were being picked up by his ears and tape recorder from where they stood.
“They’re all great kids, but they’re just kids,” TJ athletic director Mike Chavez said. “We’ve just got remind them our job is maintain the safety and keep reminding them every day, ‘Hey, we want to continue to do this. Let’s be smart, let’s take our time, let’s be safe. You love being out here every day, let’s keep doing the things we need to in order to come out every day.”’
All activities are done outside — students can only enter the school for an emergency, such as bad weather, and they must wear masks in those cases.
Each day, athletes must check in with trainer Kelsey McCulley, who asks about their health and checks them in at a tent near the entrance to practice fields. Players then head to their assigned pods, which can have no more than 15 athletes, and they remain with those specific pods during each workout session.
Knowing what pod an athlete is in, and having names on a check-in list each day, makes it easy to perform contact tracing if someone eventually gets COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
“Once you’re in pod one in the morning, you can’t say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be out of town, can I go in the afternoon?’” Chavez said. “You’ve got to stay in that same pod. You don’t have to come that day, but if you come back, you’re going back to the same group of girls.”
TJ’s girls soccer team was split into two pods, with varsity head coach Adam Weinstein working with one and JV coach Miranda Malagari working with the other.
While Weinstein’s group had 10 players, one of them — Genesis Guevara — had an ankle injury that prevented her from doing drills. So as the rest of the girls did agility drills, she and Weinstein did pushups and situps nearby.
TJ is blessed with plenty of space and fields, making it easier to keep distance between pods. While the school’s soccer team was beginning workouts on Thursday, the football team — which plans to return to varsity status this year after folding early in the 2019 season — was wrapping up its morning session on another field.
The volleyball, field hockey and boys soccer teams also had workouts this week, spread out between mornings and evenings (although weather has canceled some of the latter). Chavez said the school’s golfers and cross-country runners have continued to work on their own.
A year ago, who would’ve thought about separating teams into pods and making sure athletes avoided contact with each other? As TJ junior Sophie Jack said, this preseason is considerably different, and not just for players.
“Just like them, this is new for all of us, so we’re figuring it out as we go,” Weinstein said. “It’s challenging, but I think with anything and all things throughout a season or a preseason, you kind have to adapt.”
While the workouts are intended to help get athletes in shape, they serve another purpose for students who haven’t seen much of each other since schools shut their doors after March 13 because of the pandemic.
“Mostly, I think this experience is sort of about that social-emotional well-being and health,” Weinstein said. “Regardless of what decisions are made, because none of that is within our control. What is in control is that we can come out here and show, ‘OK, if we’re given an opportunity, then we can do it the right way. We can get the girls together in a safe way.’”
Still, there are also physical benefits.
“Quarantine, I think, took a hit on all of us, a little bit,” Weinstein said. “You’re not really able to get out, you’re worried about going here or there, so this is another opportunity to kind of open up that avenue as well.”
As Chavez said, athletes need to be patient, resisting the temptation to push themselves too hard in hopes of quickly whipping themselves into shape.
Patience also might be required as they wonder whether they’ll have a fall sports season. Some Maryland counties, including Montgomery and Baltimore Counties, have already announced that they won’t compete in fall sports. Frederick County has yet to make such a decision.
Naturally, players are concerned about missing out on a chance to play.
“Definitely, but there might be a spring opportunity,” Jack said. “And we might be able to get together just to practice in the fall.”
The uncertainty can be frustrating for players and coaches, but Weinstein tries to put himself in the position of people tasked with making such a decision.
“I guess I’m fortunate that I’m not in that position because I don’t know what you do,” he said. “One way or another, people aren’t going to be happy. You’re never going to make everyone happy.
“It’s nice that we have this opportunity, and we’ll take it for what it is, and we’ll do the best that we can with it,” he said of the preseason workouts that Frederick County began this week. “And when the time comes, if it goes our way, we’ll be ready. And if not, hopefully we get another opportunity.”