By Tris Wykes
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – The Hartford High football team was nearing the end of its initial preseason practice Tuesday afternoon when Bill Schellong spoke up.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re playing touch or tackle, we want to be the best team in the state!” the veteran line coach said loudly.
No doubt the Hurricanes would rather play the latter, but when the state of Vermont announced in July that only the 7-on-7, touch version would be played by high school gridders this fall, there was grudging acceptance. Short of transferring to a New Hampshire school, there wasn’t much else to do.
“As a senior lineman, it’s sad to hear you’re going to lose what you love and what you do, but you have to adapt and come at it with the best attitude you can,” said Jackson Balch. “This wasn’t what any of us hoped for, but we have to try and compete and get the young guys ready for next year, when things are hopefully back to normal.”
Sixth-year Hartford head coach Matt Trombly said he’ll split his team’s practice time between lessons from the tackle side that include running plays and pass-rushing and blocking techniques, and more specific strategies and skill sessions aimed at 7-on-7 competition.
The Hurricanes, 4-5, last season, open at Windsor on the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 26. Linemen will play the first and third quarters, but in the unfamiliar roles of running backs, receivers, linebackers and defensive backs. Those positions’ normal occupants will compete in the second and fourth quarters.
A traditional quarterback can be used with the line group, but Trombly said he’s wiling to deploy a big ‘un there if an opponent is adamant about going that route.
“I don’t know that any of us are going to come out looking like we’re going to make the (NFL),” Balch said. “But I think as we start getting into it, it will be just as much of a competition as the other quarters. I think it will be an important part of the game.”
Another adjustment will be wearing paper, cloth or nylon masks over one’s nose and mouth but under a football helmet. The helmet is the only piece of traditional protective gear players will wear during games. Tuesday, some Hurricanes were clearly bothered by the inner masks and needed breaks to breath more easily.
Balch, who’s worn a mask all summer for his job as a grocery store cashier, said he thinks his teammates will adjust.
“It doesn’t make things easier, but it’s something you stop noticing after a while,” the Hartland resident said. “It’s pretty normal at this point. I can’t imagine what it’s going to feel like when we stop wearing them.”
With only six seniors on the roster, Trombly’s counting on them to act almost as assistant coaches, helping the younger players learn and to make practices productive even if they don’t include collisions.
“It’s really sad to see kids who have played football their whole lives and become accustomed to playing it the way it’s meant to be played, have the rug yanked out from under them their last year,” the coach said. “I truly feel for them and all the players in the state, but this is better than nothing.”
And as Balch noted, the touch season might have a better chance of going the distance than the tackle version slated to be played by most New Hampshire schools. Word came Tuesday that Windham High, along the Granite State’s southern border, had canceled athletics workouts after positive Covid-19 cases among its student population.
“I think there will definitely be some New Hampshire schools that shut down and some teams that don’t make it through the whole season,” Balch said. “I think we have a better chance of doing that.”
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