Tim Johnson

Northwood head football coach Tim Johnson

SALTVILLE, Va. – As Northwood High School’s football players went through a workout session on Monday, their coach offered an important piece of instruction on more than one occasion.

“Stay 10-feet apart,” Tim Johnson reminded his guys.

Twenty-four eager teenagers went through conditioning and agility drills on the practice field at the Smyth County school and it was apparent this was not the usual run-of-the-mill out-of-season gathering.

“It’s amazing,” said Robert Burkett, a running back and rising senior for the Panthers. “I am so thankful to be out here.”

That’s because it was the first time the teammates had been together on campus since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic led to school closures across Virginia three months ago.

The Virginia High School League announced on June 11 that out-of-season practices could begin after school systems submitted health plans to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) that complied with Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines.

With those approved, several schools in far Southwest Virginia were back at it Monday as players and coaches were enthusiastic about getting started.

“It feels good to see the kids, for one,” Johnson said. “I’ve not seen a lot of these kids in a while. We had a school meeting last Wednesday and then our football coaches meeting Thursday and I was telling my dad [Neil] it just feels good to have a coaches meeting. It’s the small things now – it really is.”

What’s the biggest thing rising Northwood senior Tyler Waddle hopes to take out of these practices with strict guidelines?

“Get back in shape and get my lungs back,” Waddle said.

Conditioning is about all players can do with social distancing measures in effect.

Northwood’s players began Monday with an interval run and then stretched before breaking into three groups where they worked on agility, sprint-based drills and strength exercises, sans weightroom equipment.

Players must bring their own water, are told to head straight home when practice is completed and coaches wore masks.

“The thing we have to make sure of is that we make the best of it,” Johnson said. “If people are going to be negative about what they can and can’t do, they’re not going to get out of it what they can. All you can do is follow the guidelines, get to work and have fun with the opportunity to get together.”

The Class 2 state title basketball contests on March 12 at the Siegel Center in Richmond were the last VHSL-sanctioned games as Gate City (girls) and John Marshall (boys) posted wins. A state of emergency was issued by Gov. Ralph Northam later that day and the Class 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 games were canceled.

Meanwhile, spring sports never got started aside from practices and a couple of scrimmages.

The only game athletes from the coalfields to the coast have been playing since March has been the waiting game.

“In my mind, you plan and you plan,” Johnson said. “When you start hearing about Tennessee schools talking about going back, you start planning what it might look like for us, but the thing about it is the way it’s been in society since March. Things can change in 48 hours. One day it’s this and the next day it’s something else, so you have to be fluid with it.”

The VHSL Executive Committee is scheduled to meet on Thursday as they look to give athletic programs more direction as the 2020-21 school year approaches.

How has Waddle been passing the time during the pandemic?

“Farm work,” he said.

The wide receiver and defensive back was enjoying his time on the gridiron Monday, a return to the mundane drills that offer comfort.

“It’s definitely not the same,” Waddle said. “But it feels good to be back out here.”

thayes@bristolnews.com | Twitter:@Hayes_BHCSports | (276) 645-2570

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