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Local football players, coaches make most of offseason during pandemic
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Local football players, coaches make most of offseason during pandemic

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For the second straight offseason, Beulah defensive coordinator Stan Pepper stood in front of the podium at the Fox Sports 910-1310 AM The Game High School Football Media Days to represent the Bobcats and talk about the upcoming season.

This time, however, Pepper found the situation quite a bit different than his first trip in front of the cameras.

Pepper had stepped in this time last summer when new head coach Matt Johnson was busy getting his teaching certification for a new subject finished, but this time Johnson was absent for a different reason. Johnson is in quarantine after having contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus, and although Johnson’s own test came back negative he’ll be self-isolating for two weeks.

Johnson’s absence — which will go into next week when Beulah can begin practicing — is certainly a tough blow for Beulah, but Pepper explained he has learned to roll with the punches. In the landscape of high school football in the COVID world, Pepper acknowledged that’s all anyone can really do.

“I am a disciplinarian on the team. I expect things to be run and done a certain way. I’m one of those guys where if you don’t show up for practice, you don’t play. Well, I can’t be like that now because the guys may want to come to practice and can’t be there,” Pepper said. “You’ve got to take it day to day. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, so you can’t worry about tomorrow. You can’t worry about what happened yesterday.

“You wake up in the morning, go to work, get your job done — whatever your job is. When the day is over with you, wake up the next day and see what you’ve got to do then. You’ve got to be prepared for it.”

High school football’s normal routine was completely turned upside down by the pandemic, but coaches like Beauregard’s Rob Carter don’t see that as a total loss.

While those offseason workouts and spring scrimmages are undoubtedly valuable, the total change of plans was also a way to test players who will also face unexpected situations during the fall. Carter never hesitates to shake up the practice schedule with his team, and their maturity in those scenarios has him excited about what’s to come.

The Beauregard players have faced a tremendous amount of adversity on and off the field the last two years — from the tornado that hit their community in March 2019 to a tough fall football season that ended with a 1-9 record — and Carter expressed his belief that the group is stronger for having gone through so much.

“I think our kids have been prepared in that sense through our school the last few years with that adversity with changes. A ballgame is never going to be the way you want it to go, but you’ve got to be able to react on the sidelines and adjust at halftime. I think these kids have been through that adversity,” Carter said. “To go back to when the pandemic started and we were cancelling spring practice, these guys loved the gym and everything about playing the game. My phone was constantly (getting texts) … They were excited of course when we were able to get out, and (media day attendees Eston Harris, Trent Jones and Keyshawn Tolefree) were the ones that pretty much were the kindle that starts the fire.”

As much of a whirlwind as the coaches have faced, it’s been even more so for players like Valley quarterback Will Kennedy.

Kennedy is also a baseball player for the Rams, and he experienced firsthand what it was like to have a season cut short due to the pandemic. With questions still remaining about the 2020 season — which will be Kennedy’s senior year — Kennedy said it’s been imperative that he and his fellow classmates make the most of the opportunities they’re given.

“You just think about anything can really be taken away from you — especially with (myself, Dalton Dunn and Josh Heath) being upcoming seniors, you really have to think and make the most of every opportunity you get when you get it,” Kennedy said. “You might not know how long you’ll be playing or doing anything in general. I’m just trying to embrace and soak up everything you get with this senior year.”

Auburn High head coach Adam Winegarden said the pandemic forced so many players to build self-discipline, an aspect of the situation that defensive lineman Anthony Espinal was drawn to during his time away from the team.

Espinal was one of the 100-plus Auburn players who spent most of March, April and May doing spring training virtually, and the setup was one the rising senior didn’t shy away from. Espinal explained that in his mind, the biggest takeaway from the pandemic was making an opportunity out of anything God sends his way.

“I believe that all of us have had to make our own opportunities. I believe that’s vital to our success — making sure that you stay with your teammates, that you keep holding yourself accountable,” Espinal said. “It’s easy to go away from everything you’re taught, and it’s easy to forget all the things you’re taught. I believe that you just have to make the most of any opportunities that are sent your way. It’s a very important lesson.”

Pepper has been a fiery coach throughout his career, but standing behind the podium Tuesday he expressed how much he’s changed because of the pandemic. He said the situation has made him really reflect on life, so much so that he’s apologized to his wife for how he used to put all his priorities on football and subsequently missed some of their kids’ childhoods.

Pepper is one of many coaches in the midst of trying to decipher a nearly-impossible situation. As much as he’s determined to make the most of it for his players, this time has also taught him to loosen up a little when it comes to the game between the white lines.

“(The pandemic has) taught me — I’ve gotten a lot more mellow I would say this year,” Pepper said. “I’ve learned in the last two or three years that yes, it’s important, but it’s not the most important thing in the world. It’s a game when everything is all said and done. I’ve learned to relax and take the good with the bad as a coach.”

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