Keith Sachs stared across an empty Wantagh High School football field. He heard the sound of silence.
It was another quiet morning in the summer of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to interrupt normal life on Long Island. Where footballs once filled the air and quarterbacks barked signals, there was . . . nothing.
“It’s just so eerie, so sad, like it’s not real,” said Sachs, Wantagh’s football coach for the past 24 years. “Our world is just upside down. Nothing is normal, everything is up in the air. Coaches can’t make plans for anything because we’re restricted from contact with the players. And as a program, we continue to deal with the death of our coach, Tony Carter, in April. Our kids need us and we need them.”
Sachs reminisced about good times with Carter, his best friend and defensive coordinator, who died April 14 from complications of COVID-19.
“We never really mourned him as a program because government guidelines prohibited large gatherings,” Sachs said. “There is a huge void in our program and we feel that deep sense of loss. The mourning is changing into a desire to play for Tony and we still can’t even do that.”
School facilities are still closed for the summer as Long Island slowly returns to normalcy. Sachs, who also coaches baseball, knows the pandemic that took away spring sports now threatens the football season.
“It was terrible that we lost the spring sports season, and I never imagined we’d still be talking about the virus for football,” said Sachs, who led the Warriors to a state title in baseball in 2014 and the Long Island Class II football championship in 2016. “It’s unclear if we’ll have football. The scenarios range from starting on time, to a delayed start, to moving football into the late winter or early spring.”
Sachs admittedly misses his team as coaches try to figure out what to expect for the fall — whether schools will be open and if sports will be played. He said the uncertainty of things has everything in a holding pattern for preseason training.
“We’re at a standstill,” he said. “This is so much more than the season. This is more about the journey than the actual game schedule. I’m talking about all the great things we’re missing out on before we even play a game. The team-building exercises, passing scrimmages, fitness competitions, Comanche club summer training on the beach, pasta parties, mini-golf tournaments and all the things that bring a team together and help them bond before they even hit the field. That’s all being wiped out as we’re not allowed to be with our players. That’s how programs win — they experience life together.”
In East Islip, Sal J. Ciampi also felt the sting of a canceled spring season. Ciampi, who has been the baseball coach since 2005 and the football coach for the last 19 seasons, is optimistic that there will be football this coming school year. He just doesn’t know when.
“We need to know when so we can get the proper training to be physically conditioned and ready for a football season,” Ciampi said. “We’re already way behind. And I’m concerned about injuries. And any system they try to implement into jam-packed, condensed seasons would not have safety as the number one priority. It’s not possible. But I think we’ll play football at some point.”
Freeport coach Russ Cellan has no strong feeling about what football season will look like.
“I really don’t know,” said Cellan, who has coached the Red Devils for the last 34 seasons. “There’s some days I think [we will play] and there are some days I think maybe not.”
Freeport won the last two Long Island Class I championships, but the core of those teams has graduated. Cellan said he has a young group, and one of the toughest challenges is not being able to interact with his players.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this, but it is what it is,” Cellan said. “We’re not alone. Everyone’s in the same boat, so when and if we get the OK, we’ll figure it out.”
Cellan said he’s in favor of playing in the spring if the state deems the fall unsafe. For him, it’s better than nothing. He added that regardless of when they play, one of the biggest hurdles will be busing and enforcing social distancing.
“I think it could work, no question,” Cellan said. “It sure beats the alternative, which is possibly not playing at all.”
Oceanside coach Rob Blount is staying cautiously optimistic about playing football.
“Right now, I would like to assume we are still playing in the fall, but there has to be a lot of questions answered,” said Blount, who has coached Oceanside the last 11 seasons. “It’s kind of tough to completely [say for sure] right now due to the fact we are still figuring out how we are going to have school first.”
Blount, who also coaches lacrosse, said he’d be in favor of an abbreviated spring season to allow kids to play football along with their other spring sport if they can’t play this fall.
“I think one of the benefits is that it does end up giving you availability for students to play all three seasons,” Blount said. “And it still gives us time to analyze how we are going to handle lockers, school, busing and whatnot.”
This also was an important spring and regular season for quarterback Charlie McKee, who passed for 2,636 yards and 23 touchdowns last year as a sophomore after throwing for 2,460 yards and 27 touchdowns as a freshman. He was going to attend high-end spring camps along with playing spring ball with his teammates. A full season without film or playing in front of scouts could hurt his recruitment chances.
“It does change the landscape a little bit for those guys,” Blount said. “And especially for us in New York, we are a little behind the 8-ball as other states are doing the camps. But he’s still a junior and hopefully we’ll still have a season for him.”
Perhaps no team more than Sayville was looking forward to the upcoming season. The Golden Flashes will be returning up to 17 starters as they try to repeat as Suffolk III champs, including senior quarterback Jack Cheshire, who broke the Long Island record for touchdown passes in a season last year with 43. Coach Reade Sands said he got his team together once or twice a week earlier in the spring on Google meet but said it got old, especially knowing his players already were well versed in the system.
“They’re chomping at the bit trying to figure out what to do with themselves,” Sands said. “We can’t do 7-on-7, we can’t do weight room.”
With the news of the Ivy League postponing athletics until Jan. 1 and the Big Ten going to a conference-only schedule in football, Sands doesn’t see any fall sports being staged on Long Island, but he does foresee a possible spring season.
“I went right into coaching after playing in college, so this is the first summer in 34 years without football for me,” he said. “I’m going a little crazy.”
Plainedge coach Rob Shaver believes there should be football on Long Island this fall.
“I don’t know what the powers that be are going to [decide],” said Shaver, who has coached Plainedge the last 23 seasons. “I’m torn on the subject. I think football is super- important.”
Shaver, who also has a son on the team, said he’s known “about 25 kids” who had COVID-19 but never felt a symptom.
“I also think most of the research shows kids don’t seem to really be affected,” he said. “I don’t know why we wouldn’t play.”
At Westhampton, the senior class has grown accustomed to success. The Hurricanes have a Long Island Class III title in 2018 and three consecutive Hansen Award winners, presented to Suffolk’s top player. The team has done a few virtual meetings and has had a few Power 5 college coaches speak, including Dave Cohen, the defensive line coach at Wake Forest, and Kyle Flood, the offensive line coach at Alabama.
“I’m following it really closely and I’ve been in meetings at the state and county level,” said coach Bryan Schaumloffel, the Suffolk representative for the New York State Football Coaches Association. “I tell the kids what I tell everybody, and that’s that I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to happen.”