This was supposed to be the week. As the sun begins to set earlier and the air becomes crispier, high schools across the state thought they would be finishing up the last bits of preparation for the first Friday night of the fall, that magical night on the gridiron when state aspirations begin.
But that doesn’t mean the area will be without football action on Fridays, as two local youth programs have made some adjustments to provide the type of football that is allowed under the Illinois Department of Public Health’s current guidelines — flag football.
The Bourbonnais Jr. Boilermakers and Kankakee Eastside Bulldogs youth football and cheerleading programs have powered on during the pandemic, despite cancellations from leagues and teams all over the state. As it stands, flag football is a medium-risk sport, meaning teams are allowed to hold no-contact practices and workouts, as well as scrimmages within their own programs.
“It’s been very important for these kids to be able to do a structured activity that goes along with something that they’re very passionate about,” Jr. Boilermakers president Jermiah Spacht said of his players and cheerleaders. “They’ve been kept inside, kept away from their friends, and we’ve given them the opportunity to not only safely spend time with their friends but also to learn skills pertaining to something they’ve wanted to pursue.”
Eastside president Jess Gathing echoed Spacht’s sentiments.
“It’s great to see the kids back out there and to give them something to do,” Gathing said. “Everyone’s been caged up, and we can only do what we can do, but it’s been good to have the kids working out and to give them something they can do.”
Both programs are holding practices geared toward individual training and physical workouts during the week. Bourbonnais plays games on Fridays, and the Bulldogs typically play on Saturdays. For Spacht and the Jr. Boilers, part of the practices are influenced from the athletic performance training program used at Bradley-Bourbonnais, where Spacht serves as an assistant coach.
“[Bradley-Bourbonnais strength and conditioning coach] Adam Vogel works tirelessly to create programs for our high school kids, and he’s created a program here that’s given me the insight and ability to help work with ATP,” Spacht said. “It’s nice to have someone like coach Vogel to give guidance and who does such a great job of breaking it down so we’re able to start implementing what those kids will be doing [in high school].”
While the Jr. Boilermakers will strictly be playing flag football this fall, the Bulldogs have plans to get at least some tackle football in at the varsity level. Gathing said the varsity team will play in a handful of games in Indiana later this fall, and the junior varsity team also might have the opportunity.
The Jr. Kays and Brookmont Saints, a pair of new youth football programs in Kankakee, still are weighing options to get some football in as well. All other area programs canceled their seasons last month when the state released its new guidelines that placed tackle football in a high-risk category that disallowed any sort of competition.
But football is just half of the equation, as cheerleaders also are getting their time to participate. Per the IDPH guidelines, competitive cheer is considered high-risk, meaning cheer squads won’t meet for competitions, but still are able to participate in sideline cheerleading while practicing proper social distancing. Both programs also have seen an increase in coaching from their high school cheer programs as well.
“The high school girls are coming over to do a cheerleading camp the next three Mondays … “ Gathing said. “They’ve gotta be spaced 6 feet apart and have been doing that in practice.
“They’ll miss [competitive cheer] this year, but hopefully they’ll be able to get back out next year and do great.”
Both programs still are accepting participants until maximum numbers are reached. The Jr. Boilermakers are holding signups at their stadium on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 5 to 7 p.m. The stadium is located at 282 W. Bethel Drive, Bourbonnais, and the cost is $50.
The Bulldogs are holding signups on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Beckman Park, in Kankakee from 5 to 7:30 p.m. The cost is $40, and they also are selling special coronavirus shirts that can be purchased there.
Both programs are adjusting on a continuous basis to ensure they comply with any potential changes to the IDPH guidelines. Bourbonnais is considering making flag football a permanent option for families who might not be quite ready to let their children play tackle football.
Whatever kind of football or cheerleading goes on, Spacht said the idea behind it remains constant.
“The Jr. Boilermakers’ mission is to utilize football and cheerleading as an opportunity to teach the kids lifelong skills that will provide long-term success all their lives.”