For area high school coaches, COVID-19 presented challenges, 'was really emotional at times'

Buck Ringgold
Fort Smith Times Record

Like most coaches, Northside boys basketball coach Eric Burnett is a meticulous planner.

The 2020-21 school year, though, really thwarted those plans for Burnett and other area high school coaches because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I'm kind of like the guy that likes planning and whenever my schedule gets messed up for some reason, it drives me crazy," Burnett said. "This year, I could never really plan anything because trying to prepare for a game or a tournament, I really couldn't do that because at one point in time, six guys got COVID and I had to bring up (junior varsity) guys just to go play a varsity game and it was just frustrating for me.

"Every day, I came to school thinking that I was going to get a phone call that somebody was positive or somebody had to quarantine."

Burnett himself tested positive for COVID-19, missing three games, though he showed no symptoms.

Football coaches also had to adjust on the fly, especially early in the season.

Northside coach Mike Falleur was one scrambling to find games. There was also an instance where Northside had just three healthy coaches.

"The seniors didn't get to miss their final year, but just the frustration of sitting at your house on a Wednesday night and I'm calling them and saying we're not playing and then you pick up a game the next day and you're playing on Friday," Falleur said. "But everybody had to deal with it, and I think it probably made everybody a lot more appreciative of what we have when things are normal."

Mike Falleur

Southside football coach Kim Dameron faced a similar situation. The Mavericks' scheduled 7A-West opener with Rogers was canceled, so they ended up traveling to Texarkana.

The pandemic was equally tough for Dameron because he was hired in June 2020, three months into the shutdown period. There were days he still had to interact with his players via Zoom meetings, though they still conducted preseason workouts in August.

"The biggest thing was it was hard to get to know everybody, and that's probably the biggest thing I'm looking forward to this year is to have a normal season going into the season and we get to have a parent meeting, we get to have more interaction with faculty and staff and students and be able to do the things that high school athletics is all about without having the social distancing and the mask mandate and all that stuff," Dameron said.

New Southside football coach Kim Dameron makes introductory remarks during a press conference at the Southside Activity Center on Thursday, June 4, 2020.

Van Buren girls basketball coach Michael Kinney was also hired during the beginning of the pandemic in May 2020.

"When you have a kid battling for a spot on team and then have to miss two to two and a half weeks, it makes it tough for them and for us," Kinney said.

"From pre-season to all year long we were filling holes for people missing. We had six different varsity girls out during the season."

Southside girls basketball had broken its 60-game losing streak in late December and followed it up with another win. But they were soon hit with a rash of COVID-19 cases, which forced a game with Northside to be canceled, along with several 6A-West games postponed.

Robert Brunk is introduced as Southside HIgh School's girls basketball coach Tuesday, April 16, 2019.

Southside coach Robert Brunk noted there were five conference games in which he had only seven players.

"It was really hard, it was really emotional at times. ... When they came back, they were all happy to be in the gym and even though we weren't able to get any wins after it was over and it kind of derailed some things we were trying to do, they had great attitudes when we came back," Brunk said. "Then they completely understood when I said early in the season, be thankful for every game."

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Even now, with vaccinations and the mask mandate being lifted, coaches are still taking precautionary measures.

"We still keep the sanitizer and almost automatically keep our social distancing because we’re just so used to it," Alma baseball coach Brian Fry said. "We’re certainly more cognitive of washing our hands and sanitizing thing now, and players have their own helmet and bat. In the past, we would just share those."

But those coaches believe things are trending toward normalcy once again when a new school and athletic year begins in August.

"We try really hard not to put as many in the weight room as maybe what we would like at times, but for the most part, everything is pretty much back to normal," Dameron said.

"The second semester, we have not had near the contact tracing or any of that that we've had in the past."

Press Argus-Courier sportswriter George Mitchell also contributed to this report.