CHATHAM, NJ—After a difficult offseason, the Chatham High School Cougars were looking forward to getting back on the field this fall. But a positive coronavirus test in early September forced the school to pivot to remote learning for two weeks, suspending practices.
The pandemic, which forced at least the postponement of one game, has been a recurring hurdle for the players, some of whom are entering important junior and senior years.
"It's made it very difficult for them," said Chatham Head Football Coach Dan Czepiga. "I feel bad, but I think the players are all just trying to push ahead."
The Cougars enter the 2020 campaign after posting a 3-7 record last season, Czepiga's second. Chatham finished the year strong, however, winning two out of its last three games.
Heading into this season, there was optimism that the mix of returning veterans and promising underclassmen would propel the program forward. Czepiga said his players are anxious to get going.
"Everybody's excited across the board to get started," said the coach. "We are all just kind of waiting for the 29th."
Chatham High School Athletic Director Mo Abdelaziz said the program now must ensure compliance with state regulations, and not only with respect to safety and the pandemic.
"The start of practice will be the 29th," said Abdelaziz, "and the NJSIAA has rules in place that dictate how many practices athletes must have before competing."
Czepiga said the regulations mean the team will begin in the "heat acclimation period," in which it will practice two days with only helmets. The practices will gradually get more intense, the coach said, leading up to full contact prior to the Oct. 10 opener.
"Essentially,"Czepiga said, "we'll get four practices in full pads before we play Morris Hills on that Saturday."
The coach said he sees the team as resilient, and despite the unprecedented interruption the pandemic has brought, the key players, particularly the team captains, appear ready to go this fall.
"Will Duff, who is going to be a three-year starter at our offensive and defensive line positions," he said, "and Lucas Reasons, another three-year starter, those are key players."
Czepiga said he'll rely on wide receiver Chase Carlin, a two-year starter, on offense this season. The coach added that the offensive line, which will return four of last year's five starters, should be a bright spot. And Czepiga said he sees strength this season in the linebacking corps, anchored by middle linebacker Jack Kuppenheimer, another three-year starter.
Czepiga said that despite the obstacles the team has had to overcome, he's optimistic about the new season and the direction the program is headed. He added he's especially encouraged by the upcoming crop of youth players.
"We have the potential here to build something special," the coach said, "Our youth program does a great job and this will probably be one of our stronger freshman classes. I think the future is pretty bright."