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As fall sports practice begins, things finally begin to feel normal

High school practices, tryouts began on Monday

Sandalwood football players practice in the gym on a rainy Monday afternoon. Fall sports practices began Monday around the state.
Sandalwood football players practice in the gym on a rainy Monday afternoon. Fall sports practices began Monday around the state. (WJXT)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The high school football season is almost here.

Monday at the stroke of midnight kicked off the start of the fall sports season, with teams officially able to open practice. Jackson opened with a vigil to honor two assistant coaches who died this summer, offensive coordinator Donald Rocker, Jr., and Lin Shell, and then got in a practice. Fletcher, under new coach Ciatrick Fason, typically holds a midnight practice, too, but was wiped out by rain.

Rain forced a few teams indoors on the first day of fall practice, including Sandalwood, which went through its first day of practice in the gym. But rain or shine, indoors or outside, it’s far different than where things stood a year earlier.

The 2021 season opens with more clarity, more normalcy and no questions about potentially pushing the season back due to the coronavirus pandemic.

At this time last year, the high school sports season was in limbo due to the uncertainty of COVID-19. The Florida High School Athletic Association voted on Aug. 14 to move ahead with a delayed start to the sports year. Practices began Aug. 24, nearly a month later than normal. The season felt scrambled up, with postponements and coronavirus-forced cancellations the norm.

Every team that declared for the state playoffs made the playoffs. This season, it’s back to districts for teams in Class 5A-8A and back to qualifying for the postseason by points for teams in 1A-4A.

But now, it’s beginning to look and feel like a regular football season again.

“It definitely feels normal from a football standpoint. Like you said, last year at this point, Aug. 2, we didn’t even know if we were going to have a season,” Fason said. “The good thing is I can lay my eyes on a whole bunch of new players. Expectations may not be high, but I make them high for myself.”

For Jackson, getting back to practice Monday felt normal after an emotional offseason that saw two coaches die unexpectedly.

The team honored both Rocker and Shell on a festive pre-practice Sunday evening. The rain dissipated by midnight and afforded the Tigers a chance to get out on the field.

“It went wonderful. Lin-J had so much family down it was absolutely wonderful. Good for us to share it [with his family],” said Tigers coach Christopher Foy.

“We made a night out of it before we went down to the field. I really feel they’re becoming young men, and not just from going through these tough times. But situations in practice, as a coach, you can always judge and see they’re maturing and that’s exciting. You hate to have anyone go through this. But in times like this, use that as your measuring rod.”

Teams can begin full-contact practice begins on Saturday, with kickoff classics in Florida Aug. 18-21, and the regular season starting on Aug. 25 (most teams in the area begin Aug. 27). Teams in Georgia begin their regular season on Aug. 20.

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.