Five miles away, but a different world: There was high school football in Indiana on Friday night

More than 200 Indiana high school teams played football in the midst of a global pandemic, while all the high school stadiums in Illinois sat silent.

SHARE Five miles away, but a different world: There was high school football in Indiana on Friday night
Lake Central coach Tony Bartolomeo and his team wear masks at half-time during the game against Munster.

Lake Central coach Tony Bartolomeo and his team wear masks at half-time during the game against Munster.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

ST. JOHN, IND.— Lake Central High School is just five miles from the Illinois state line and only 20 miles from Gately Stadium, but on Friday night it felt like a different world.

There was high school football in the midst of a global pandemic, while all the high school stadiums in Illinois sat silent.

Led Zeppelin and country music blared during the pregame warm-ups an hour before kick off against visiting rival Munster. Athletic secretary Cheryl Fulk was busy setting up the gate to allow visiting fans inside and check in media members. There was a sign that said masks were required, but no temperature checks.

“Ticket sales were decent,” Fulk said. “There are people that want to come and people that are fighting for there to be no game. Everyone has an opinion. We’re just trying to do it the right way.”

It was a late-arriving crowd but there wound up being a large Lake Central student section. Even visiting Munster’s side had a student section, although only a few dozen adults.

There were plenty of parents in the Lake Central stands. It was senior night, which is odd for the first game of the season.

“We want to play the whole year but we are playing each day like it is our last so we wanted to get that in,” Lake Central football coach Tony Bartolomeo said.

Bleachers were taped off to mark out where fans could sit. Almost everyone wore a mask and the tape worked — there seemed to be sufficient distance between the fans.

“I’m not worried at all,” said Steve Garcia, the father of junior wide receiver Diego Garcia. “The kids need to be out here playing. It’s something they enjoy. You can’t dread on something you can’t control. You can just try to be safe about it and try to move on.”

Fans sit in the stands between lines of blue tape marking 6-feet of distance during the game between Lake Central and Munster.

Fans sit in the stands between lines of blue tape marking 6-feet of distance during the game between Lake Central and Munster.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Chris Creasbaum, the father of the junior running back Max Creasbaum, said his family was considering transferring Max to a private school if Lake Central didn’t play football in the fall.

“The number of kids that are on the field and the number of people here supporting it has to show people that people are for this,” Creasbaum said. “If any parent didn’t want their kid out there they wouldn’t be playing. The community is pretty solidly behind it.”

Everyone at the game did seem to be in favor of it, which makes sense. But the community is split according to Lake Central quarterback Luke Neidy.

“It’s been up and down,” Neidy said. “We have die-hard people that want football or they don’t want us to do anything. And we have people that don’t want us playing. For a minute there we didn’t think we were going to play. Then the [school board] voted to play.”

Several high schools in Indiana have decided not to play football. But 246 schools did play on Friday night. The Illinois High School Association has delayed football until February due to concerns about COVID-19.

“It’s very strange,” Neidy said. “I know a ton of guys at Mount Carmel. It sucks for them. It has got to be tough.”

Neidy said he wasn’t worried while playing. Not even when a kid he didn’t know from Munster tackled him.

“No, not really,” Neidy said. “It didn’t really bother me. Our stands are usually a lot more packed but it felt like a normal Friday night. Nothing was really different.”

That was the oddest thing of all. Just how normal everything felt. The weather was beautiful, there were cheerleaders and touchdowns.

“Once the game started it was the game,” Bartolomeo said. “But prior to the game we weren’t allowed to use the locker room. We are socially distancing on the sideline the best we can. Kids are wearing masks that are not engaged in the game. Fans are here but they are spread out.

“I was as nervous for this game as any I’ve been involved in. I have a very young offense. We didn’t have a scrimmage. We didn’t have a normal summer or normal team camp or all that stuff.”

Munster’s Vince Foerster (5) runs the ball past Lake Central’s Armond Earving (99).

Munster’s Vince Foerster (5) runs the ball past Lake Central’s Armond Earving (99).

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Bartolomeo said one of his players decided to transfer to Illinois because his family preferred the IHSA’s plan to start in February. Jim Holloway, one of the game’s officials, said that several officiating crews have opted out of the season.

“They decided it wasn’t worth taking the chance,” Holloway said. “I feel safe. It’s been mixed emotions really. Every week is a new story, which schools are going to play and which are not.”

The PA announcer regularly reminded all the fans to wear masks. The concession stand was closed. Lake Central trounced Munster 38-0. In the post game talk Bartolomeo reminded his players that everything isn’t normal.

“You have to decide where you roll to tonight,” Bartolomeo said. “Is it worth maybe missing 14 days?”

Bartolomeo said the players have been great about wearing masks and staying distant.

“There is no fighting, no pulling teeth,” Bartolomeo said. “Football was taken from them. They got it back and it has given them a better perspective. They don’t take it as much for granted.

“The kids are much better than the adults. All the kids are good with masks and they all take it seriously.”

Were the Lake Central and Munster fans and players guinea pigs in a COVID-19 social experiment on Friday night? Or did they get away with playing high school football while Illinois missed out?

“It’s all about the kids having fun and being kids,” Fulk said.

Time will tell.

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