CHEYENNE – The sun hasn’t been up for more than a couple of hours, yet intense workouts are about to commence across three high school campuses separated by less than 20 miles in the capital city.
Temperatures are taken, questions asked, everything scribbled down. Masks and gloves are then distributed accordingly – coaches included.
A short time later, barbells slam against the floor of each weight room. Bars clank against weight racks every so often to signal the end of a set. Shouts of emotion – or exhaustion – bounce off the walls. Outside, whistles pierce the air to signal the start of sprints. Tiny rubber bullets and particles of sand are kicked up from each of the three high school football fields in town.
It’s been like this for more than a week now – a semblance of something that, not so long ago, used to be normal. It’s anything but.
Between lifts, bottles filled to the brim with sanitizing agent spray blankets of disinfectant across the weight rooms – the persons in charge of cleaning taking extra precautions to wipe down every last inch.
This process is done multiple times every morning Monday through Thursday at Cheyenne Central, Cheyenne East and Cheyenne South.
Most of the second semester of the 2019-20 academic year was wiped out because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Spring sports were canceled before they officially started. Eventually, Laramie County School District 1 buildings started to close – weight rooms included. For months, learning and instruction was done virtually. Weight training and conditioning done remotely.
As the coronavirus gripped the nation and the world, LCSD1 administrators and athletics directors worked around the clock behind the scenes. They kept in line with the Wyoming Department of Health guidelines and built a plan of their own for when, not if, student-athletes could return for workouts.
Those began in earnest in late-June, although curtailed somewhat.
Each school is allowed a maximum of 33 kids and two coaches in the weight room at all times. Each group alternates between the weight room and football field, where they go through various running exercises.
The large group is then broken down to pods of three, which remain at the same weight rack for the duration of the weightlifting session – unless, Central athletics director Chad Whitworth said, they are executing box jumps, where social distancing becomes tougher.
Each student-athlete and coach is required to wear masks and gloves, which, Whitworth said, were provided by LCSD1 – however, student-athletes are allowed to bring their own. When a student-athlete needs a spotter during a lift, the spotter is required to stand on the “sides of the bar” and not over the top of the student-athlete.
During conditioning, social distancing is arguably easier to maintain – though, masks still must be worn. “I go out every morning and set up cones where they can put their water,” Whitworth said.
“The natural instinct for kids is to congregate together when they go get drinks, so we’re trying to help them just because it is what they do, naturally, they want to be with their friends,” he added. “And so, we’re doing some of those things to try to help remind them, but keep them separated, and still accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish with strength and conditioning.”
Having some sort of normalcy has cast a glimmer of hope in the capital city – one that arguably was in question a few months ago.
“Coaches are just happy to see their kids,” said Whitworth, “and I think, in a way, the kids are just happy to see their coaches and their friends in that environment again.”
That rings true for Mike Apodaca. The Central football coach is entering his third season at the helm, and, he admitted, being away from his team for so long took a toll.
“You get into this profession, whether it be teaching or coaching, because of the kids,” said Apodaca, who is one of the coaches present during summer weight training and conditioning for Central. “That time away from them is – I don’t think a lot of people understand how different that is. It’s all you know, and it’s what keeps you going each and every day.”
The pandemic has cost teams invaluable time together, including the entirety of the spring sports season. Apodaca said his team lost around three months of weight training and between 12 to 14 spring sessions in late-May. Central also lost out on its team camp the first week of June, along with its 7-on-7 competitions.
“It’s tough,” the coach said. “And I think any coach will tell you, in six to eight weeks, you’re probably not going to make a big difference in terms of a kid’s overall strength, but in four months, we would’ve.”
Apodaca adjusted the best he could. When the weight room was shut down, he sent out individual workouts for his players to complete if they had access to essential equipment. That substitute isn’t the same as in-person workouts, he said.
“They need their own, sometimes, push,” Apodaca said.
Dan Gallas has been coaching for four decades, and he will start his fifth season leading the charge for South football this fall. Yet the pandemic quite possibly could be the biggest obstacle he has ever seen from a coaching standpoint, though he pointed out a few meager hurdles he’s had to overcome.
“There was one school district I was in where they started tearing up the track and the football field to redo it on Aug. 1, and we were a football team without a field,” he said. “We had to travel to three different spots during the week, carrying dummies and whatnot around. That was challenging. We’ve had things where schools have changed their policies along the way. Things were small (then), but this is really a good-size challenge.
“It’s different. And it’s very fluid. Our checks and balances are all changing frequently, but we do our best to adapt and get as much out of whenever we can get together with our students and get as much out of it as we can.”
Chad Goff is among a group of coaches that helps run the summer workouts at East. Despite the health restrictions and other safety guidelines that are in place, Goff said he has seen more determination from student-athletes participating in workouts.
“I think we’ve had a lot more consistency from kids as far as showing up, and if a kid’s been here, (they’ve) pretty much been here every day,” the Thunderbirds football coach said. “Truly, it’s better in a sense that it’s more organized. The way we’re doing, it is probably more efficient than some other years.”
The numbers of student-athletes that attend each session is “crucial,” Goff said. In previous years, East would have upward of 100 student-athletes using the weight room at one time.
“You can get more done in a weight room (with fewer athletes),” he said. “The metal that’s getting pushed is pretty cool. Sometimes change is a good thing, and I think it’s been a positive thing, and we’ve made it a positive thing, and the kids have made it a positive thing, because you really have no other choice.”
If there was an adverse effect to this new normal, it would be having to spend more time with student-athletes every day. The group limit factors into that, but Goff said he and the other East coaches have taken it in stride.
“That’s what we do. That’s our life. We coach these kids, and these kids want to get better,” he said. “You’re not going to walk away from a kid that wants to get better. It’s not a big deal. It is what it is when it comes to that.”
All three LCSD1 high schools have been given permission to start limited “on-field” drills, which, according to Apodaca, began at the start of this month. That work includes ball touches, using the jugs machine, working on stances and explosive movements.
“It’s a step in the right direction, and from what I gather, each and every week, that (workload) might get a little bit more (involved),” Apodaca said. “And then whenever we get more options, that’s when it’ll be rubber hits the road and trying to figure out the best way to get all your stuff in, yet just not overwhelm the kids.”
What the fall will look like has yet to be determined. Answers remain few and far between at this point, but LCSD1 coaches aren’t getting caught up in trying predict what will happen. Their focus remains on the present.
“That’s all we can really do. If we get hung up on the fact that, ‘Oh, they might change the season,’ or ‘They may not let us do with this,’ or ‘They may not let us do that,’” Gallas said. “… if I get hung up on that, then the kids are going to get hung up on it, and it’s going to be a difficult challenge for us to work into.
“We’ll just do what we have to do, when we have to do it. That’s all we can do.”