Like all areas of the nation, COVID-19 has made its impact felt on extracurricular activities in Calhoun County, Mississippi.
Two of the county’s football teams have had games canceled due to their opponent coming down with the virus, and the band at Calhoun City High School has had multiple members in quarantine over the course of the season. Calhoun City earned a forfeit win over division rival East Webster two weeks ago due to the EWHS having positive COVID tests, and Vardaman High School gained a division win over Okolona for the same reason a week later. Head coach of Bruce High School, Jamaal Jackson, also missed his team’s jamboree due to being in quarantine to start the season.
Although Vardaman and Calhoun City football have both benefitted in the win column due to opponent forfeits, having games canceled can cause difficulties in preparation for teams, as illustrated by Calhoun City head coach M.D. Jennings.
“I think it hurt us not playing that week, coming basically off a BYE,” Jennings said. “I think we were a little rusty. So much of our offense relies on timing, but I guess from a mental standpoint, I preach to our kids, that could easily be us.”
Jennings states that for his team, the focus goes beyond staying safe at school and the fieldhouse.
“We’ve got to make sure we do the right things not only at the field, but in the community also to make sure we remain safe,” Jennings said. “We’re just doing the little things and have got to stay on top of it.”
Those “little things” include social distancing while indoors, wearing masks and purchasing neck gaiters for the team prior to the season.
Jennings, a first-year head coach, has found the issues presented by COVID-19 to be particularly challenging as he has become acclimated to his new job this season.
“We’ve got to make sure we do the right things not only at the field, but in the community also to make sure we remain safe. We’re just doing the little things and have got to stay on top of it.”M.D. Jennings, Calhoun City head football coach
“It’s been tough,” Jennings said. “I just tell the kids and staff that we’ve got to roll with the punches. When something goes wrong, it’s my mindset that things could always be worse.”
Vardaman head coach Brennan Pugh is also young, in only his second season at the helm of the Rams’ program and has seen challenges as a result of the virus in 2020. Last week, Pugh had a death in the family, so the cancelation of the Okolona game actually helped the youthful playcaller in a sense.
“Obviously in the win column, it affected us that way,” Pugh said, “but to be honest, for me personally, it kind of helped me out. Obviously, I hate that we won’t be able to get it back, but we’re not the only team to have to deal with it. We have to move on and get ready for the next one.”
Although the issues presented by COVID-19 have been unique this season, Pugh believes every week produces special challenges, and he is taking the challenges as they come.
“It’s definitely presented new challenges, but I feel like every year there are some challenges that you’ve got to adapt and overcome,” Pugh said. “It would be one thing if we were the only ones having to do it, but everybody is dealing with the same thing, so we just do the best we can with it and control what we can control.”
Pugh, like Jennings and other coaches around Mississippi, are practicing what he describes as “common sense” measures like social distancing and constant washing of equipment, but that still doesn’t fully eliminate the risk of spreading the virus. Pugh himself had to quarantine due to contact tracing earlier this season and coached two games from a construction lift in his backyard adjacent to Carter Field.
“Thankfully, so far, we haven’t had any issues with besides me having to miss because of close contact, and hopefully we can keep it that way,” Pugh said.
“It’s definitely presented new challenges, but I feel like every year there are some challenges that you’ve got to adapt and overcome.”Brennan Pugh, Vardaman High School head football coach
The impact of COVID-19 hasn’t been limited to football, however. Just ask Calhoun City band director Hannah Irby who has seen multiple rounds of band members quarantined in this shortened season thus far.
“We had band camp scheduled for the last three weeks of July, and I got exposed to COVID from a band mom,” Irby said. “So, we only had three days instead of three weeks.”
This past week’s game against Eupora was the first time Calhoun City’s band has performed at halftime since early September. Although City’s band routine has been unorthodox due to the virus, they plan to travel to rival Bruce this Friday.
“Hopefully, we’ll make it to this game without anything happening,” Irby said. “We’re planning on going to Bruce, but it’s been rough.”
Irby is fresh out of college and in her first year as Calhoun City’s band director, something that has made adapting to this world of COVID-19 even more difficult like her coaching counterparts.
“It’s been rough,” Irby said.” Thankfully, college makes you good at stress management, but being the only one and dealing with COVID, I’ve had to call numerous mentor directors and just ask them what I should do. That’s the only thing that’s kept my sanity.”
In the midst of the hectic season, Irby is pleased that the Wildcat band can play part of its routine, but, obviously, her expectations have been altered due to all the speedbumps encountered along the way.
“We can play two out of three songs, so that’s the best I think we can ask for at this point,” Irby said.