Texas high school football found a way to play through pandemic

Highlighting the culmination of UIL’s high school football season is Saturday’s “Dodge Bowl.”

Austin Westlake, coached by Todd Dodge, faces off against his son, Southlake Carroll coach Riley Dodge, for the Class 6A Division I state championship scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

In any other season, the battle of the Dodges would have attracted scores to the 80,000-seat stadium also known as “Jerrys World.” Instead, the games are only open to 17,000 fans.

It’s one of the many realities of staging high school athletic events in these pandemic times. The limited seating capacity allows for seating pods and social distancing.

“It is certainly helpful that (AT&T) has the size to pod spectators in a way to keep them socially-distanced from other spectators and allows, relatively speaking, more spectators in a safe way that another facility may not be able to,” UIL deputy director Jamey Harrison said. “These state championship games are so important to the kids who play in them and they’re really important to much more than that.

“They’re so important to the entire community that school represents. So, to make sure their parents and family members have an opportunity to experience that game is really, really important to us.”

The “Dodge Bowl” is one of four contests scheduled for this weekend. Aledo-Crosby kick things off at 1 p.m. Friday for the 5A Division II crown followed by Denton Ryan-Cedar Park at 7 p.m. Friday in 5A Division I. Cedar Hill-Katy, scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday precedes Carroll-Westlake.

The 2020 season spilled into 2021 after the UIL split its football seasons with Classes 4A to 1A starting on time in late August and Classes 6A and 5A beginning a month later. That’s 21 weeks of football as opposed to the normal 17.

The season has forged on despite the rising number of cases across the state. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services website, as of Wednesday, there have been 1.77 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 since March. In Bexar County, that number is 113,878. Harris County has had the most in the state (267.729) followed by Dallas County (197, 359) and Tarrant County (156,876). Bexar County is fourth.

The UIL was resistant to suspend or postpone any seasons across the board. Instead, it was going to let local districts determine it.

“What we knew from the beginning was that every part of the state was not going to be facing the same exact same challenges,” Harrison said. “That’s why our plan was built the way it was built to give flexibility to school on when to start or if they had to suspend for a brief period of time. … It is not a perfect plan. It never has been, but it has been a plan that has worked, by and large.”

Some districts, like Houston ISD, delayed the starts to their seasons. Several teams had to cancel games. George Ranch was forced to forfeit to Katy Taylor in the first round of the playoffs because of COVID-19.

“Anytime a team that has worked so hard to accomplish something loses that opportunity because of conditions beyond their control, it’s a sad moment,” Harrison said. “It is not one that has been lost on us. This is what we do for a living. This is our lives. We take all these decisions very personally, and they weigh very heavily on our hearts. We hate that for those schools, but at the same time, we didn’t see the answer being taking those opportunities away from other students. We had to keep things going so other students would have those opportunities.”

Saturday’s “Dodge Bowl” hasn’t escaped the grip of the pandemic. Riley Dodge didn’t get to coach his team in the state semifinals — a 34-27 victory against Duncanville — after he tested positive for COVID-19. His isolation period wasn’t completed in time for last Saturday’s contest.

The Carroll vs. Westlake game is already a sell-out and tickets for each game are being sold separately and online only. No walk-ups to the ticket booth this year. AT&T Stadium has hosted fans for Cowboys games, along with the Big 12 championship and Rose Bowl.

“What AT&T has been able to learn about hosting events and being able to capitalize on the lessons they’ve learned to help us make ours successful and safe event has been really fortunate,” Harrison said.

The stadium also hosted seven UIL state finals from Classes 1A to 4A last month. An eighth game — the Class 1A Division II final between Balmorhea and Richland Springs — was originally scheduled for Dec. 16 at AT&T was postponed for COVID-19 reasons. The six-man final was eventually played on Jan. 5 in San Angelo, a 74-38 Balmorhea victory.

“We think, by and large, our schools, the student-athletes and the families have done yeoman’s work facing very difficult challenges conducting business in ways they’ve never conducted business to get us to this point,” Harrison said. “It’s really pretty amazing with the outlook as it has been at different times that we’re approaching the last weekend of football.”

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