When the Auburndale Eagles football team walked off the field after losing to Abbotsford Nov. 1, 2019, they expected to be back better than ever with a large number of seniors returning.
The Eagles held a 21-20 lead in the third quarter of the game but a touchdown for Abbotsford late in the third quarter sealed the victory.
Juniors getting beat in the Level 2 playoff game undoubtedly looked forward to their senior season thinking they would come back and make a run to state.
Then COVID-19 came.
Spring sports were cancelled. All around the world sporting events were postponed and cancelled. Minor League Baseball, composed of 261 teams with stadiums and staff, cancelled its 2020 season.
Initially, experts and news outlets scrambled to project when “normal” would return. Some said in a couple months, others claimed by summer when the cold and flu season ended.
High school athletes all over the country braced themselves for their sports to be cancelled. After a harsh summer, the economy began to open. Schools opened mostly on schedule and eventually football was back. But the landscape in which it came back was vastly different than in previous years.
Auburndale’s football season began like many others, with kids deciding not to play due to concerns about the virus or even just because of the violent nature of the game of football.
The team was faced with a decision: play football as normal with the lowest numbers the program has seen in quite some time, or go to 8-man football and try to be competitive with a sufficient number of players.
Head coach Jay Anderson said it wasn’t an easy decision to make, but he was left with no choice when he saw how many kids went out for football this year.
“The day I was going to [make the decision], we had two seniors and one junior [at practice],“ Anderson said. “I brought them together and said, ‘Do you see what I see? I don’t know who’s showing up.’ I had no question that at the time, 8-man [football] was what we needed to do.”
Due to the lack of 8-man programs in central Wisconsin, the season would involve a lot of travel and flexibility for kids who were also having to adapt to unprecedented school schedules.
A prime example would be the team’s first game. A tough nearly three hour ride to Sevastopol High School was the first test of the year for the Eagles.
With no scrimmages or preseason games, Anderson’s squad had no idea what was in store for them in their first contest but they came away with a 76-22 victory. Just like that, their 2020 season was underway despite all of the uncertainty heading into the year.
It wasn’t all good news for Auburndale. Heading into the third week of the season, the Eagles had won both of their games but injuries forced Anderson’s hand into cancelling a second game against Sevastopol.
In what Anderson thought would be viewed as a bye week, quickly turned into a string of complications for his team.
Three straight weeks of cancellations due to COVID-19 outbreaks or opposing teams wanting to play schools that were closer forced Auburndale to explore other options.
Finally, they found a game but would have to work hard to get ready because it was against Thorp High School who had been playing 11-man football the whole season.
Though faced with adversity, the Eagles stepped up and dismantled Thorp 61-12.
The lack of upperclassmen thrust freshmen and sophomores into starting roles on the team and Anderson said they responded pretty well.
“By the end of the year, we had a few freshmen that could help on special teams without putting themselves in danger,” Anderson said. “Our sophomores stepped up and they showed they could handle it. Going into the season, we didn’t know if that would be the case.”
As the team was preparing for its final game against Altoona High School, Anderson received a message during practice that said Altoona had gotten a positive test and was cancelling their game against the Eagles.
Anderson ultimately left it up to the battered team whether they would continue to practice just in case they could get some last minute games in or call it a season.
“We were on our walkthrough on a Thursday and when that [game] was cancelled, everybody was really down,” Anderson said. “It was difficult. Just standing on that field and to know that, that was it—going through all of that and then it just came crashing down.”
It started to set in for the seniors that the last memory of football they would have would not be walking off the field after a game. Rather, it would be on a Thursday afternoon during a practice.
Anderson said he learned a lot about the guys who stuck it out through all of the craziness and changes that the season threw at them.
“There was a lot of strength and leadership within a lot of these guys to go through these situations that happened,” Anderson said. “They really showed a lot of maturity. They had to take everything day-by-day and that’s a good lesson too.”
Billions of people around the world have felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their stories of hardships are ones that will be shared for generations to come. High school sports are very small compared to the struggles of others but it makes up a piece of what characterizes this pandemic and era.
Next season, the seniors will be watching their former teammates from the stands. They will be witnessing what could have been if their season had not been derailed by COVID-19.
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