Come Thursday, then again Friday, high school football fans around the country will have their eyes focused on Utah. The Beehive State kicks off the 2020 high school football season after an unsettling offseason of coronavirus pandemic concerns and
painstaking plans from decision-makers nationwide on how to deal with
it. The Boys of Fall take the field in Utah a few days after two college Power Five conferences deemed it better to postpone their fall seasons to 2021.
Thirty-four other states still plan to join the prep football kickoff sometime in fall.
Six more — Alabama, Alaska, Indiana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Tennessee — will start next week and 18 states overall have committed to get their football seasons rolling by Sept. 1.
But, for the first week, Utah stands alone at the end of the diving board for all to gawk and gander before jumping in.
Not Texas. Not California. Not Florida.
A Class 6A contest between Davis and Herriman opens the Utah season Thursday with 51 more games scheduled for Friday, including defending state champion and preseason No. 1 Corner Canyon (Draper) hosting Farmington.
"It's super cool to be at the epicenter of football right off the bat," East (Salt Lake City)
coach Brandon Matich said. "It will be great to show everyone that Utah football is a bigger deal than most think. We have a lot of talent here, from top to bottom, excellent coaching and some really good teams.
"At the same time, with all that's going on, I hope we're not set up to be the guinea pig."
The complications and force of the virus, and how to integrate it into interscholastic sports, has demanded endless hours of study, conversation, debate and planning among state high school associations that are ultimately bound by state health, education and governing bodies.
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, for instance, had a fall plan all in place but last week the state's Gov. Tom Wolf made a surprise recommendation not to play high school sports until 2021. The PIAA was forced to "pause" its plan and now hopes to meet with the governor.
Of the 35 states to commit to fall football, at least five pushed back the season by more than a month, and Texas' University Interscholastic League divided its football season into two time frames, delaying its large-school divisions (5A and 6A) five weeks. That will send its state championships, which last season drew 228,105 fans at AT&T Stadium, to sometime in January.
Florida, another renowned high school football state, has been divided on just when to start its season. A final decision from the Florida High School Athletic Association is supposed to be made Friday.
Fourteen states, plus the District of Columbia, have decided to push back the season to 2021.
New Mexico was the first to make that call on July 9, California announced the same 11 days later, and others have gradually followed.
On Tuesday, Vermont announced a plan to play 7-on-7 touch football instead of tackle in the fall, the same day the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences announced they've postponed all sports until the New Year. On Wednesday, North Carolina flipped its commitment from the fall and opted for 2021.
"Clearly every state and every region in every state has their own concerns and opinions on how to deal with this thing," Matich said. "I can tell you in Salt Lake City we're following every social distancing protocol. Other places in Utah, it's like an alternative universe.
"I'm just excited we all have a chance to play."
To get to this point, East has shared many of the same challenges and roadblocks others have in Utah and throughout the country.
For instance, East and all Salt Lake City-area squads weren't cleared to take the field until two weeks ago due to the state's color-coded risk meter.
Salt Lake City graded out orange (moderate risk), and to play football it needed to read either green (new normal) or yellow (low risk). Late modifications to the rule from the governor's office allowed East and all the other area schools to play sports, though others in the state have been practicing since June, Matich said.
"There was definitely a lot of stress and frustration not knowing if we'd ever get on the field," Matich said. "The attitude of Utah was come hell or high water we're going to play football on time with or without Salt Lake City teams. But now we're all in."
Playing with an orange rating comes with limitations, such as no fans for home games and a game-day roster limitation of 50. That led Matich to reschedule all but one of his home games to away sites — outside of Salt Lake City — including Friday's opener, now at West Jordan.
"We can play at East in front of crickets or we can allow our parents to be able to watch their children," Matich said. "I'd rather be road warriors and jump on a bus to allow our fans to watch us."
His program has been among the top in Utah since taking over the program in 2012, topped out in 2016 when the Leopards finished 14-0 and ranked No. 18 in the country by MaxPreps.
His team went 10-4 last season despite starting six sophomores and a pair of freshmen, including one of the top current incoming sophomore running backs in the country, 6-foot, 205-pound Amini Amone
, who rushed for 1,900 yards last season.
He and junior Mapa Vaenuku
(6-1, 210) form one of the top running tandems in the state. That duo plus Washington-bound defensive tackle Voi Tunuufi
(6-2, 280), junior tight end/defensive end Orion Maile-Kaufusi
(6-3, 210) and returning quarterback Izaak Zimmerman
n give Matich lots of hope for this season.
Pairing down his game-day roster to 50 — he currently carries 71 and has topped out at nearly 100 players during his tenure — won't be easy.
"It's a challenge for sure picking kids and leaving them behind — the kids take that hard," he said. "It might also be hard to keep scores down without a longer bench."
The biggest concern for Matich and all Utah coaches is if or when a single player tests positive for the virus after a game.
"The way I understand it is that the state would mandate that both teams be required to enter a 14-day quarantine, rather than just the one player," Matich said. "That seems like a never-ending cycle of challenges waiting to happen."
It's already happening throughout the country.
* McCallie (Chattanooga), a top team in Tennessee, has quarantined for 14 days after 11 players tested positive
for the virus. Tennessee is scheduled to kick off its season Aug. 20.
* One of Indiana's top rivalry games featuring two Top 25 state teams, Warren Central (Indianapolis) versus Center Grove (Greenwood), scheduled for Aug. 21, was canceled
due to multiple positive virus tests.
Matich understands the complications of COVID-19 and appreciates every social distance rule. His wife, Andrea, is a sports medicine doctor and their three young sons play youth football.
"We take every precaution imaginable with our team, with our family, believe me," he said. "Masks. Wipes. Distancing. Everything. It's vital, we know.
"Bottom line, managing all the things COVID requires is a pain. But we'll gladly deal with all of it as long as the kids get to play and compete. We're just thankful to have a season. For however long it lasts."