ARCO – Looking back at the past three months, Butte County football coach Sam Thorngren admits he’s still torn about how the 2020 season has played out.
On one hand, he’s happy the Pirates have been able to play some semblance of a season. They are 3-2 with one regular-season game remaining. On the other hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the small 8-man program and it’s a day-to-day struggle just to endure on the field as well as in the classroom and at home, Thorngren said.
“Honestly, this is the most difficult season I’ve ever had,” he said.
When it was announced in late summer that the high school football season was going to start on time, the reaction in football circles was a mix of elation and disbelief.
Coaches and players were anxious to play, but the pandemic still raged and even a 50-page list of guidelines and recommendations sent out by school and health officials may have seemed inadequate.
Even so, most teams tried to charge ahead the best they could.
That includes the Butte County Pirates.
Here’s their story.
Sophomore McCoy Beard’s headache just wouldn’t go away. It got so bad it hurt just to put on his helmet and he couldn’t practice. The ensuing doctor visit resulted in a COVID-19 test and a positive result.
“I was shocked,” Beard said. “I didn’t think at all I had it.”
Beard quarantined in the family’s camper with symptoms ranging from a head ache to a stuffy nose.
But that wasn’t his only concern.
“I was absolutely scared it was going to quarantine the entire team and they wouldn’t be able to play,” Beard said.
Beard and his teammates were still anxious about the season and how the ‘new normal’ would impact games going forward.
“We were just hoping to practice and play as long as we could,” he said.
Beard was able to return to the team two weeks ago.
The Pirates continued to practice, although occasionally players missed practice due to quarantine or the team suffered the usual football injuries, making practice and planning difficult. School was moved to alternating classroom and online teaching schedules for a while and the Butte County volleyball team was temporarily shut down for a positive COVID-19 test.
“We were worried it would spread through the team because that’s when we got our first positive,” Thorngren said. “We had two or three kids quarantined. We were worried that might have been the end.”
Health protocols require players to get a temperature check before practice and use hand sanitizer. Coaches are also driving home the mindset that staying safe is more important than playing time.
“We tell the kids if you have sniffles to stay home,” assistant coach Rye McAffee said. “It will not cost you. In years past, if you miss practice you won’t start. Now we tell them for the team betterment not to do it.”
The importance of the team-first message isn’t lost on the players.
“We just kept going through practices,” sophomore Travis Ashton said. “If you were sick or not feeling good you would not come to practice or school … you had to self quarantine so we didn’t have to quarantine the whole team and end our season.”
Even as the football season started, Thorngren said he was on edge about how things would develop. The Pirates beat Watersprings to open the season.
“I thought there was a chance that might be our only game the whole year,” he said.
Thorngren and McAffee were watching film in preparation for a game in early September. Thorngren felt sick the following day and was eventually tested.
“That was hard, that’s one thing you can’t prepare for,” he said. “When you hear you have it, you think you know what it might mean to be quarantined and you just feel completely shut off and in the dark. You feel like you let the whole team down.
“We told the kids early that if they get it not to feel that way.”
McAffee tested negative but quarantined for seven days. Other coaches had contact with positive family members and were quarantined. Thorngren isolated at home and his struggle became personal.
While his wife tested negative, the couple’s young daughter has a history of respiratory problems and was a concern during isolation, although she never showed symptoms. Three stepchildren also isolated.
“The worst part was fever and body aches,” Thorngren said. “I had trouble breathing. It was hard to get rest because it feels like your lungs are full and you try to get a breath and it hurts … I couldn’t walk from one end of the house to the other without being completely winded.”
As the virus spread around the region and state, several schools canceled or rescheduled games as players quarantined or tested positive. Different districts had different policies and regulations, so trying to keep a schedule was a week-to-week process, Thorngren said.
While isolated, Thorngren, who also teaches at the school, tried to keep up with lesson plans for his students and keep in touch with coaches and players.
“That’s where you feel guilty, too,” he said. “You’re at home doing nothing. You send lesson plans but you feel you’re not doing your job whether it’s coaching or teaching. It’s an empty feeling.”
Thorngren is back coaching and teaching.
He said he’s constantly worn out and still nervous about being out of quarantine.
“You feel like people are nervous around you,” he said. “I still try to keep my distance.”
McAffee, whose daughter plays volleyball and was quarantined, said everyone is trying to stay positive and be flexible during the hard times, but the reality has already hit home.
“There is no doubt it’s real and it effects people differently and we need to protect ourselves,” he said. “Health is No. 1. If there’s no conronavirus, protection and health of our players is No. 1 anyway. We obviously want to be healthy, but the political stance and climate this year hasn’t helped the situation.”
"Being my junior year I was super excited," Tyler Wanstrom said of starting a new season. "It was so close to not starting off. It was a difficult situation, but we got through it. It was awesome."
Thorngren said the constant stress has taken a toll and he sometimes looks back to late summer and wonders about the decision to play in 2020.
“That’s my internal debate every day,” he said. “I do think we have a sense of normalcy and I think it’s important the kids are getting a chance to play, and then there’s other times you worry we’re helping spread it.
“There’s really not a right answer no matter what you do.”