The voices of coaches are once again reverberating across the San Marino High School campus, signifying the long-awaited return of its athletic programs.
Truth be told, at least half of the exhortations have nothing to do with technique or strategy relating to their particular sport. Instead, the main topic seems to be adhering to proper social distancing, mask-wearing and the other norms that have arisen in the COVID-19 era.
“Eight feet, eight feet,” Titan head football coach Justin Mesa told his players, a directive that had nothing to do with football but was instead a reminder of how much distance from teammates they had to maintain during a short water break.
Across the way at the outdoor basketball practice, a reporter was not allowed to corral a stray basketball, lest it be subject to an elaborate re-sterilization process.
Still, the entire area was full of young people wearing Titan T-shirts and broad smiles and seemingly ecstatic to be anywhere other than sitting in front of a computer at the dining room table.
“Being able to start in-person workouts has been a great step for our program,” said Liz Reuter, San Marino’s new girls’ basketball coach. “For our girls, this will give them a chance to see some of their teammates and get a great practice in while staying safe. It gives our girls a chance to get out of the Zoom meetings and into the fresh air. Mentally, practices will give them back a little bit of normalcy that they haven’t had the chance to be a part of since March. We have only been going for a few days but it makes me even more excited to be a part of the San Marino community.”
Reuter splits the outdoor basketball courts with veteran boys’ mentor Mihail Papadopulos, who is also preparing for the basketball season, which is slated to begin in March.
“Although we were hopeful and resilient from the beginning, I never imagined that distance workouts, live workouts via Zoom and now small in-person workouts that are socially distanced could be so impactful and could give us such incredible energy, results and growth despite the challenges,” Papadopulos said. “In a time in which we were asked to lock down and work in a more isolated environment, as a program, we were forced to innovate and find solutions to replicate traditional gains made from gym workouts, team competitions, the weight room and film room, and the results have been incredibly inspiring.
“We are fortunate to have a large staff of wonderful coaches that have been thoroughly involved in the entire process and have helped to plan and make our Zoom environments and in-person workouts purposeful.”
Unable to use the school’s weight room, assistant coach Brandon Garner improvised the team’s training program using resistance bands instead of traditional weights, with positive effects.
“The results have been incredible and a big reason why, when we met last week for our first in- person workouts, it was so much fun to see each other,” Papadopulos added. “It was fun to laugh and feel the energy together, but it was even more amazing to see the changes in each player and to appreciate how far our boys have come in such unusual circumstances.
“Despite COVID-19 being such a spirit-draining time, we feel that we have transformed this moment into an incredible opportunity for our program to earn and not be given a path, to build our brotherhood and to reinforce the important lesson of being resilient and that together, we could keep each other positive and all move ourselves one day closer to a goal. Although it has not been easy or an ideal set of circumstances, we are so proud of our boys and coaches and the lemonade that we have created out of lemons during this time,” Papadopulos continued.
“Zoom for us was simply a technology conduit to actively connect roughly 30 boys and four to five coaches at each session and gave us an opportunity to develop our skills, gave us a platform to interact with each other, compete with each other and challenge each other to get stronger.”
Mesa was brimming with the enthusiasm that comes with personal interaction with players and coaches.
“First of all, it is great to be back on the field,” Mesa said. “We all were missing the interactions and camaraderie that typically accompany a team environment. The players have shown up with great energy and enthusiasm on a daily basis. They have done a tremendous job of adjusting to the social distance guidelines on the playing field. They really have handled it well.
“We have focused on a variety of conditioning drills and individual skill development during this phase and are anticipating the next phase when we can do a little bit more,” he added. “But for now we will take what we can get and continue to be grateful for the opportunity to be on the field again.”
Another first-year coach, Angel Ramirez, has been using the softball outfield on the school’s upper athletic field to hold workouts for the girls’ volleyball team.
“The girls were really excited to come back,” Ramirez said. “The in-person workouts have been converted into a mixture of ball control, passing and serving and agility drills. We are still doing some online workouts, but it’s nice to get outdoors. There are a lot of positive vibes around the program.”
Running can be an individual pursuit, but cross-country coach Angus Leung gathers the squad several times a week on the familiar track at Titan Stadium.
“It’s going well,” he said. “We still don’t have the whole team out, but it is fun to work with whoever I can.”
The squad held informal, player-only runs throughout the summer in an effort to stay in top shape.
“The ones who have been showing up regularly are making really good progress,” Leung said. “The best part is, the kids are really enjoying being back together.”
The San Marino Unified School District closed its doors on March 13, and halted all extracurricular activities to prevent the spread of COVID-19. On July 20, the California Interscholastic Federation announced its updated schedule for the 2020-21 school year that retained all previous sports but employs a two-season format that is scheduled to begin in December. The CIF’s new calendar postponed the beginning of the traditional fall season — Season 1 — to that month, with several sports being shuffled between seasons. The revised calendar sets the last day for regional or state football playoffs as April 17. The last day for all other rescheduled Season 1 sports will be sometime between March 20 and April 17. Winter sports, such as basketball, will be woven into spring sports, with regional or state playoffs ending June 19 and those offerings now designated as Season 2.
The typical athletic year contains three individual seasons, but the CIF chose to reduce the number to two and move some of the individual sports to accommodate the new arrangement. Season 1 will now include football, field hockey, gymnastics, boys’ and girls’ volleyball, and boys’ and girls’ water polo.
The Season 2 lineup will feature baseball, softball, boys’ and girls’ basketball, badminton, boys’ and girls’ golf, boys’ and girls’ soccer, boys’ and girls’ tennis, boys’ and girls’ swimming, boys’ and girls’ track and field and boys’ and girls’ wrestling. Season 2 will begin in March.
Along with reshuffling the schedules due to this reorganization, Athletic Director David Irie has been tasked with providing a safe environment in which to welcome students back to campus. Under the guidelines, all training and conditioning take place outdoors and participants assemble in pods of no more than 12 athletes. Students have completed a physical before attending in-person training, a standard requirement, and are required to complete a health screening every day before training begins.
SMHS’ first game of the fall sports season is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 19, a girls’ volleyball game pitting the Titans against Flintridge Sacred Heart. The Titans’ football season kicks off on Friday, Jan. 8, when Crescenta Valley visits at 7 p.m.
Mitch Lehman / TRIBUNE