Out of sight, out of mind was Tyler Morris’ approach to his next football season.
Morris, a junior wide receiver at Nazareth, has stayed busy getting stronger and faster as time has marched on since his last game — the Class 7A state final in 2019.
Then, a Roadrunners team loaded with talented juniors and sophomores lost to Mount Carmel. Walking off the field, Morris remembers thinking about getting back to state in a year.
He won’t get another chance to play for a state title till this fall. But the chance to play some real football is just weeks away, as long as Illinois’ COVID-19 numbers keep trending in the right direction.
On Wednesday, the most anticipated IHSA announcement in years gave Morris and other players and coaches the news they wanted to hear: football practice starts March 3 and opening night for a six-game season is March 19.
“I’ve tried not to think about it too much,” said Morris, the consensus No. 2 player in Illinois’ class of 2022. “[Wednesday] I thought deep into it: I’m going to be playing real football. It’s so much different than seven-on-seven.”
Nazareth is so much different now too. Some of Morris’ teammates went to play in other states. JJ McCarthy quarterbacked IMG Academy to a national title before enrolling early at Michigan. Defensive end Ryan Keeler left Nazareth to finish his high school studies online and has left for Rutgers.
But the Roadrunners also have welcomed some newcomers who are ready to step up and make a name for themselves.
“I feel there are a couple guys that are going to blow up this year,” Morris said.
The six-game season in March and April will be a dress rehearsal for what Morris hopes will be a normal nine-game season and playoff starting in August.
“Everybody was tired of waiting around and not being sure [if there would be games],” he said. “After this season is over, it’s about getting ready for next [fall].”
For St. Rita wide receiver Hank Wilson, meanwhile, it’s a chance to finish his high school career on his own terms.
The Western Michigan-bound senior broke his left tibia and fibula in week six of his junior season and missed the Mustangs’ run to the Class 5A state final in 2019.
After a grueling rehab stint during which he lost 25 pounds and had to use a wheelchair to get around school, Wilson can’t wait for one more go-round with his friends before heading off to college ball.
“This whole dilemma is just a lesson that you should not take anything for granted,” Wilson said. “Appreciate every opportunity you get.”
He’s glad to finally have a concrete schedule for getting back on the field.
“It gives me a framework of how I should be training,” he said. “I’ll cut down on powerlifting.”
While Morris and Wilson are ready to dive back into football, Plainfield South senior Niko Schultz has a decision to make. He was the Cougars’ starting quarterback as a junior, but also is one of the state’s premier middle-distance runners.
When COVID-19 shut down the boys track season in March after a few indoor meets. Schultz was atop the state leaderboard in the 800 meters.
So what to do this spring? Track practice starts April 5, more than two weeks before football season ends.
“That’s a big decision,” Schultz said. “I’ve still got to talk to my football coach and my track coach. ... Football is my passion, but at the same time I’ve been working all year on track.”
Like their players, most coaches have been riding an emotional roller coaster for months.
Evanston coach Mike Burzawa was looking forward to this season, thanks to a veteran offensive line and some marquee skill players like Sebastian Cheeks, the No. 3 junior in the state.
Burzawa saw the potential in his team during the long offseason, from strength and conditioning work to summer workouts and later contact days.
“When we came back from winter break, it was probably the first time in my mind I started to lose hope,” he said.
But then came a wave of good news in the past week, from the Illinois Department of Public Health easing restrictions on sports to the IHSA announcing a definitive timetable. “We went from zero to a thousand in a heartbeat,” Burzawa said.
Maine South coach Dave Inserra also saw hope slipping away earlier this month.
“All of January, we had Zoom calls and stuff, but these kids were lost,” he said.
Now, the Hawks are re-energized by the prospect of even a shortened season.
Inserra understands playoffs are off the table because of the calendar, and the desire to squeeze every remaining sport into a compressed window.
But he’d still like to see some kind of special wrap-up to this most unusual season.
“I pushed to play five (regular-season) games,” Inserra said. “The sixth game would be a ‘bowl’ game.”
That might be a crossover series between neighboring conferences like the Central Suburban and Mid-Suburban, with each league’s No. 1 team squaring off, the No. 2s facing each other and so on.
The idea, Inserra said, is “to give the kids something to play for.”
After months of fearing there wouldn’t be any football played at all, that would be a nice cap to the season unlike any other.