Louisiana high school football fans had a lot to cheer for Friday morning, and in a month’s time, they could have a rooting interest on Friday nights again.
Following a statement on Attorney General Jeff Landry’s opinion that schools will face no liability if they play football at the House Education Committee meeting Friday morning, LHSAA executive director Eddie Bonine made one clear, concise message: it’s time to play football.
Speaking in front of nine members of the the House Education Committee Friday morning, Bonine said on behalf of the LHSAA, “I am ready to take a recommendation to my executive committee next week.”
That meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, where the LHSAA alone will decide the fate of high school football in the state. Bonine said the season could go on as scheduled on Oct. 8.
"I'm really excited about that because usually what Bonine says is what the executive committee goes with," Ouachita Christian head coach Steven Fitzhugh said. "States in the south are playing. They've proven it can be played and people can still be healthy and safe from this virus. If they're going to school together inside the classrooms, it's an obvious situation that outside they would be even safer."
Bonine told Rep. Larry Frieman that a decision to go forward would not be directly tied with Gov. John Bel Edwards phases, meaning if the state remains in Phase 2 for a longer period of time, the LHSAA could still move forward with high school football returning.
Bonine also stated the association is not dependent on the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education or any other group to make the decision to move forward with football.
Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said BESE’s policy was passed absent any language relative to LHSAA sanctioned athletics.
“We never viewed sanctioned athletics within the purview of the Department of Education or BESE,” Brumley said. “So when the question comes up where is athletic language in the bulletin, it’s intentionally not there because we never saw it as our role to make policy for the LHSAA. However, outside of the bulletin in our guidelines, we did issue a statement: Athletic activities are allowed to resume with the recommendations put forth within the LHSAA guidance for opening up high school athletics and activities. So we feel that we have very clearly stated in our guidelines that the LHSAA sanctioned activities are in the purview of the LHSAA.”
Coaches across Northeast Louisiana were collectively celebrating the news Friday morning. Coaches like West Monroe head coach Jerry Arledge and West Ouachita head coach Matt Middleton did not want to jump the gun before it's actually official with the LHSAA's executive meeting. But still, it's hard to hide that bottled up emotion.
"I'm really fired up," Middleton said. "I'll feel really fired up when it's official, but it's been a long time coming. I think the kids are going to be geeked out of their minds."
Ouachita's Jeff Fitzgerald is in a similar boat. Like most of his colleagues, he doesn't want to celebrate too soon and, of course, is rooting against any spikes that could occur in the coming days. Still, Fitzgerald said the situation feels like a shot in the arm for all programs in Louisiana.
"I hate to say it's like bringing hope to a hopeless situation, but you have some players that swallowed the fact we weren't playing this year," Fitzgerald said. "But nobody has said no, and you have others who have held on to that small glimmer of hope. It's given us an opportunity to talk about what we can put our hope in. It's opened the door of opportunity to talk about other things that are more important."
Bonine noted there is a new standard out that allows 50 percent capacity for fans in high school football stadiums. Arledge really liked that part.
"We probably have as large a high school stadium in the state, so we could still seat around 6,000 people," Arledge said. "I'd be satisfied to put that many people in our stadium on any Friday night."
Sterlington head coach Lee Doty said his players have practiced with a high-level of intensity throughout the pandemic, but Doty expects a change in tone at practice next week. And really, he's talking about older members of the team...
"I expect a different intensity from the coaches," Doty said. "Our kids have really enjoyed being out here. Coaches, we often have it in the back of our mind, 'Are we doing all this work only to have to look at our kids in the face and tell them we're not playing?' I'm excited for our seniors. I'm excited for our kids. This is great for our community."