Whitehall-Yearling Athletics: Rams hoping for chance to compete

FRANK DIRENNA
fdirenna@thisweeknews.com
Whitehall boys soccer coach Gerald Leka (left) shares a laugh with senior Chris Inguil during warmup drills at practice Aug. 7. Amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, "the kids have been phenomenal in understanding the importance of following the protocol," Leka said.

Although first-year Whitehall-Yearling boys soccer coach Geral Leka is aware of the importance of athletics, he realizes that the safety of student-athletes takes precedence.

Amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Whitehall opened its summer training June 10 utilizing the Ohio High School Athletic Association's mandated phase 1 protocol. That phase requires conducting workouts in groups of the same five to 10 people with one coach per group. Social distancing of a minimum of six feet also is required.

The school's contact sports moved to phase 2 later in the summer but returned to phase 1 on July 30 upon a recommendation from Franklin County Public Health. Groups in phase 2 in outdoor sports can consist of up to 50 people with social distancing of six feet still required.

With Whitehall back in phase 1, scrimmages have been canceled for football, boys soccer, girls soccer and girls volleyball, and athletics director Bill Hughett said his department is awaiting direction from Superintendent Brian Hamler on how to proceed.

"The kids have been phenomenal in understanding the importance of following the protocol," Leka said. "Our athletic trainer (Sarah Hartwell) has been on site observing some of our practices. She has been very happy with how well students are following the protocols.

"I've been impressed. Going into it, I was a little bit unsure with how much of a learning curve there needed to be for the players to follow the protocol, but they love soccer. They're passionate for the game. They don't want to do anything that will jeopardize their season."

During the return to phase 1, Leka and the athletic training staff have closely monitored the players' health with daily temperature checks, screening questions and discussions.

"Phase 1 involves a lot of individual drills and no scrimmages," said Leka, who served as an assistant coach the past five years. "It's mainly conditioning."

While Whitehall returned to phase 1, several area programs have remained in phase 2. Leka, however, isn't concerned about the potential disadvantage.

"I'm optimistic by nature," he said. "It's frustrating for us not to be able to scrimmage, but I'm grateful for the opportunity to fine-tune some of the aspects of the game that you can only do on an individual basis or on a very methodical approach. You have to learn to accept what you can control and look for best possible outcomes."

The Rams are scheduled to open Aug. 21 at home against Hilliard Davidson, but the start of the season could be delayed because of the pandemic. The game is part of the state's Friday Night Futbol schedule.

"My priority right now is getting the team ready for a season if there is one," Leka said. "If there's not, there's still a lot of lifelong lessons that players can learn from this ordeal. We'll pull through."

The girls volleyball program also has returned to phase 1 with assistant coach Kirsten Turner leading the team on an interim basis in place of Tierra Copley, who was hired in the offseason but stepped down Aug. 2 because of family reasons.

Whitehall is scheduled to open Aug. 22 at home against Eastmoor Academy and Groveport.

The boys and girls cross country teams are scheduled to open Aug. 29 by playing host to the Dan Reid Invitational, but Hughett said he is awaiting final approval from Hamler and the school board.

"It is disappointing," Hughett said. "You never want to see it go back to phase 1 because you're essentially starting over."

Hamler announced June 29 that the district will begin the school year Aug. 31 in a full remote-learning model. It will remain that way through the first quarter, which ends Oct. 23, and reassess at that point.

The OHSAA released a proposal Aug. 7 for a shortened football season in which all teams would qualify for the playoffs after a six-game regular season, but the plan needed Gov. Mike DeWine's approval. The proposal called for the season to begin the final weekend of August, as previously scheduled, with the postseason beginning Oct. 9 and ending no later than Nov. 21.

"We focus primarily on safety and wellness of the kids first and then we'll implement whatever we need to to make sure that stays accordingly," Hughett said.

fdirenna@thisweeknews.com

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Whitehall senior Jefferson Martinez participates in soccer practice Aug. 7. The Rams are scheduled to open Aug. 21 at home against Hilliard Davidson, but the start of the season could be delayed because of the pandemic.