YOUNGSTOWN – Doug Phillips does not fixate on the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic or that it will be 456 days since the Youngstown State University football team played a game. The head coach’s focus is his Penguins practicing for the Feb. 21 opener at North Dakota State.
“I feel very good about that, about where we are at this point,” says Phillips, who was hired Feb. 7, 2020.
The Missouri Valley Football Conference delayed its season to February. North Dakota State, Southern Illinois and Missouri State each played one to three non-conference games in the fall – the only league teams to take the field before YSU’s eight-game MVFC season begins.
Youngstown State canceled its nonconference games against Akron, Eastern Kentucky and Duquesne in September, a move that resonates with Phillips.
“For us, it gave us a chance,” he says. “Maybe in September, our offensive line wasn’t going to be quite ready where now we’ve had time to really install and get some practices under our belt.”
With the rescheduling of the season to the spring, the Penguins prepared with Zoom meetings with position coaches and players. Phillips says those virtual sessions solidified the team’s relationships.
There were 15 practices last fall. While they were helpful, it was still different from competing on Saturdays.
Antoine Cook, a junior from Mc-Keesport, Pa., says the fall preparation “gave us more time to focus on the next season and build what we want to have for the season – just a little more time for us to get better.”
YSU players prepared in individual sessions before Thanksgiving, while those who remained on campus and local players had voluntary workouts and weight room time right before Christmas. Team sessions resumed Jan. 8 with two-weeks of preparation into the first practice Jan. 22. The team is allowed 20 hours of practice time a week before the season opener.
YSU has a 2021 fall season. Phillips says the amount of practice days in full equipment might have to be tempered because of the quick turnaround.
“We’ve got to make sure our kids are going to be healthy this year and they’re going to come back and return to be healthy for the following season. Because never before in the history of college football have you had to play two seasons in a 10-month span,” he says.
Ethan Solger, YSU assistant athletics director for sports medicine and head football athletics trainer, says Phillips and his staff understand the recovery aspect and are making sure players aren’t doing too much training.
“In conjunction with our strength and conditioning staff, we can put together a plan for those student-athletes that may need extra time to get enough recovery on the back side [of the season],” Solger says.
Normally, YSU would be preparing in the summer heat to start the season. Phillips wants players to remain healthy in the frigid weather outside the climate-controlled Watson and Tressel Training Site. And so, he continues to emphasize drinking water.
“We still have to be able to hydrate because hydration, or the lack thereof, is how you can have everything from concussions to pulled hamstrings,” he says.
On Jan. 11, YSU added 12 new players, mostly transfers, to its roster of more than 100. With the possibility of positive COVID-19 cases and injuries, depth is important to Phillips.
“We’ve got to get that whoever is the starter to the third-string guy ready to play football because at any minute you can be quarantined, someone can have a positive [test],” he says. “We address those needs by bringing in necessary personnel. So, it gives us more depth at those positions.”
YSU director of athletics Ron Strollo says he’s contacted Mid-American Conference schools, The Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati to see how they hosted football games this past fall season.
Strollo says YSU has some plans in place to have fans in attendance while being as safe as possible. YSU announced on February 21 it has been given a variance by the Ohio Department of Health Stambaugh Stadium can have 3,600 for home games
Chris Sumner, YSU assistant director of athletics sales and event management, says the university put in a variance request to allow “close to 4,000 fans.”
Guidelines from the Ohio Department of Health cap the number of people in any outdoor sports venue at 1,500 or 15% of fixed seating capacity. Fifteen percent of Stambaugh Stadium is less than 3,100 of the 20,630 total seats. For Cardinal Mooney and Ursuline High School games in the fall, the stadium allowed at most 1,500 fans.
Tickets for the team’s four home games will be sold on a single-game basis in socially distanced blocks of two to four.
“There’s going to be a lot of social distancing protocols, screening for fans, different tier entrances for different levels of staff that we have,” Solger says.
Strollo says this year YSU is switching to electronic tickets as an option for games, using a QR code on your phone as a fan’s pass to enter Stambaugh Stadium.
He adds fans still have physical tickets, but have the ability to have them scanned or have that QR code on your phone.
“If you need to transfer tickets to your friends or whatever, you’re gonna be able to do that,” Strollo says.
“Just walk up to the stadium and show your phone. Even with tailgate parking, you’re going to be able to do that also.”
PICTURED: The Youngstown State offensive line practices position drills in the Watson and Tressel Training Site. New head coach Doug Phillips says the extra time to work with the team will have them better prepared for the spring season.