Friday Night Lite: Amid a ‘weird’ new normal, a fall football tradition carries on at Centre County high schools
The Friday night lights were finally shining on Centre County high school football fields, as a delayed season kicked off in mid-September. Home teams ran out as cheerleaders screamed and school bands played, but there was something missing.
Yes, the lights were still bright, but with stadiums relatively empty because of ongoing pandemic restrictions, the sound of the crowds was muted, and the feeling just was not the same.
Gone were the student sections, socializing and cheering on their classmates. Gone were the younger kids watching and dreaming of their time to shine on the gridiron. Gone were the reunions of classmates and friends from years past, getting together once again at the old ball field.
This was Friday night football in 2020, and most were just glad the game could be played in a safe way.
“It is weird. The atmosphere is just strange. There are no kids here; it is quiet. Glad to be here, but it is just odd,” Amy Sharer said during the home opener at Penns Valley on September 11.
Sharer’s son Ben is a senior football player, and he was allotted two tickets to the game. Sharer said she is grateful for that opportunity, despite the strange circumstances.
“I keep reminding myself that we didn’t think we were going to have a season at one point, so if weird is the new normal, I’ll take it,” she said.
Some bleachers at Penns Valley were closed, and parents were required to wear masks at all times. They cheered their team on, ringing cowbells and roaring for big plays, but the state-mandated capacity of 250 people for an outdoor event adds up quickly.
From coaches and players on both sides, to cheerleaders and the band, to refs and scoreboard operators, to the crews in the press box and photographers, there was little room left for fans. And so the decision was made to allow only seniors the two-ticket max at Penns Valley, and for Bald Eagle Area’s home game as well. No other fans were allowed to attend.
Every car pulling into the lot behind Penns Valley High School was accounted for by school staff, keeping the numbers in check. Only those with tickets or on the list were allowed in.
At the gate, people lined up to sign in, provide phone numbers, and get their temperature checked. At one-point, staff found a group trying to sneak into the game.
“Had to chase them off into the cornfield,” said Penns Valley Athletic Director Nate Althouse. “Never thought we would be chasing people away from a high school football game.”
On the field, officials and coaches wore masks and worked to keep players on the sidelines as distanced as possible. Players have been following strict safety protocols, but on the field, the game was played just like it has been for decades. You can’t tackle someone from a 6-foot distance.
Fellow Mountain League members Bellefonte and Philipsburg-Osceola played away games to kick off the season, meaning the only caravans from those schools making their way to the first games of the season were full of players and coaches; no fans, no friends, no family.
Mid Penn Conference member State College Area High School was not set to kick off its season until October 2, at Central Dauphin.
It was difficult to get even to this point. As of mid-August, it was unclear whether a high school football season would even happen. While officials with the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association worked to develop guidelines for a safe return to play, Governor Tom Wolf recommended that fall sports not be played.
“Watching the PIAA spar with the governor, or the Department of Health, or name your agency, these are the politics you would expect to play out on a second-grade playground,” said Althouse. “The lack of initiative to come to an agreement is mind-boggling. I am not sure where the disconnect is, but we get one directive from the PIAA one day, and the governor throws us a Sandy Koufax curveball the next day. Meanwhile, schools are scrambling to keep up and make adjustments just to keep our kids in training.”
Eventually a plan was made, allowing this Friday night football and other sports to occur. For Althouse, that was a big relief.
“When the PIAA announced we were going forward with playing, a huge weight was lifted,” he said. “We went over 160 days without being in school. Just to have something to look forward to that isn't a new Netflix release is a milestone. Going to school, playing high school sports – they are signs that we are on our way to establishing some normalcy as a community.
“As spread out as our community is geographically, the effects of further social isolation because of the pandemic have been really tough. The fact that we will only be able to have senior parents in attendance to start our season is disheartening, but we're making baby steps. Hopefully, we will gain some traction over the course of the season and get to a point where all the parents can attend, and eventually a good number of students and fans.”
But the Rams suffered a setback when a player from their first opponent, Clearfield, later tested positive for coronavirus; that forced the postponement of Penns Valley's September 18 game against P-O, as players were told to quarantine.
Friday night tradition
“I don’t remember a Friday night not going to game in the fall; even as a kid, Mom and Dad would take us,” John Zerby said.
Zerby played for the Rams, and after graduating in 1981 he has continued the tradition of following the team every year since, even watching his son suit up. Cheering for players you have watched grow up is what it is all about, he said.
“Penns Valley is small community, so you know everyone,” he said. “Damn near every year, you know someone who is playing ball. The biggest thing about Friday night football is supporting the kids, but it also is tradition. Friday nights – when it gets to be September, October, it means football.”
“You start to get that feeling; first you have the Grange Fair, then school starts, and football starts,” said his longtime friend Glenn Fultz with a glimmer in his eye.
Fultz was thinking back to all the games, all the stories, and all the kids they watched grow up on the field. For a time, Zerby and Fultz helped on the field, taking notes and working with the coaches. They have traveled all around the state watching the home team, and this year there is a void on Friday nights.
While the games are being broadcast on TV and online, that is no replacement for being there, seeing all those old friends, and feeling the fall air on a Friday night. Fultz said he didn’t even watch the first game.
In the end, Zerby and Fultz are glad that the kids are getting to play, but they feel bad that the experience isn’t what it used to be.
“Like it does to most small communities, football games are where people get together on Friday nights; this is what people rally around,” said Kelly Aston, who was in the Penns Valley stands for the first home game, watching her son, senior John Aston. “This is a sense of pride. We always rally around the hometown boys and the girls that make up the band and cheerleaders. It is just the whole atmosphere that is really important to this community.”
Penns Valley student photographer Jordan Anderson was busy taking pictures of the surreal scene during the first home game, and she said it is that experience of the school and community coming together that was missing.
“You look over there – and I know the boys were talking about it in school today – when they score, they will raise their arms and there will be nobody over there to make a whole bunch of noise …,” Anderson said. “I wish I could be over there dressed up with my friends in our student-section theme, cheering our classmates on the field.”
Watching from afar
It was nerve-racking for the Koleno family leading up the first Bald Eagle football game, said Danielle Koleno. Her son Ethan’s baseball season was canceled last spring, and they weren’t sure what to expect for fall sports.
“I have four kids; Ethan is the youngest. They all played sports and we have always looked forward to going to get the spikes and the shoes or the gear to get them all ready. This year, it was like, ‘Do we go, do we not go?’” said Koleno. “For Ethan, he is a sports kid. He plays football, he plays basketball and baseball. For him, every day, kind of waiting to hear if they were going to have it, were they not going to have it, was difficult.”
As the parent of a junior, Koleno was not allowed to watch the first game in person, instead watching on YouTube.
“We were thankful to see it, but it’s just not the same,” she said. “Then we picked the kids up and it was even hard to talk about the game. It is just not the same; the whole attitude, the morale, the kids certainly tried and played well, but the momentum is not there. The excitement, the hype of it all, it’s not there.”
Watching the game on the screen “is so hard, because you want to yell, you want to cheer for your kid. You know, they might not admit it, but they look up to the stands and they want Mom or Dad or Grandmom or Grandpap to be there,” Koleno added. “It makes a difference; they try harder, they work harder when there is someone there. They want to show them they can do it.”
The community is working to be there for all of the athletes dealing with these difficult times, placing signs in the yards of players and throwing sendoff parties before games, she said, but something is missing. She likened it to the feeling of a scrimmage instead of an actual game. In the end, she is glad Ethan and the other kids at least had a chance to play; she just hopes the season can continue.
Raider Nation (socially distanced) watch party
In Bellefonte, the Raider Nation is a fixture at all sporting events. Students attend as many games as possible and dress in themes to support all things related to Red Raiders athletics.
“You just look up in the stands and you would see a hundred different kids all dressed up, supporting the team; it is just really neat to see,” said Bellefonte Area Middle School teacher Buddy Johnson.
His daughter Mia is a Bellefonte senior and a part of Raider Nation. When she and her classmates realized they wouldn’t be able to go to football games this year, they came up with a different way to cheer on the team.
“We still wanted to cheer and show our support, so we came up with these watch parties so we could still be inclusive to everyone and still get themed Fridays going,” Mia Johnson said.
Instead of wearing their themed gear to games, they are dressing up for school on football Fridays.
“We thought it would be something where we could get together and still be a part of something, because it’s not always easy to get everyone together and … root for one thing,” she said.
Raider Nation co-leader Kira Watson said football season is especially important to the student body.
“My friends and I look forward to football season every year and love cheering for our friends while dressing up for different themes. Since we weren’t able to have the usual Raider Nation in the stands, we decided to do the same thing at home,” Watson said.
The watch parties are rotating through different houses and are supervised by parents who are making sure to follow safety guidelines, inviting only classmates who are already in school together and practicing social distancing.
The Johnsons planned on holding the second watch party of the season on the 18th, outside with a bonfire and the game projected on the garage. Watson’s family held the first event of the season.
“The watch party turned out great and was such a fun time with the circumstances we were in. It was a great substitute for not being at the game, but of course, we still would prefer being in the stands watching and cheering the team on,” Watson said.
Buddy Johnson said Raider Nation is just one way the community supports its athletic teams.
“I know the coaches work tirelessly and the community really approaches what the … players give up to be a student-athlete and to go out there on the field. They play for the student body and the community as well,” Buddy Johnson said. “We are really fortunate to live in a small town like Bellefonte, where Friday night, Saturday morning, Sunday morning, you hear people talking about the football game and what the score was.”
The Bellefonte Area High School Student Council is attempting to keep some homecoming traditions going during this difficult year.
“Although we cannot have our parade or presentations at a football game, we still want to crown a king and queen, honor people in our community, and reach out to Bellefonte alumni,” said teacher and Student Council Co-Advisor Jennifer Richardson. They are considering potentially honoring essential workers by making signs for local businesses and recognizing alumni who they hope will submit videos about their favorite homecoming memories.
The band plays on
“Having football without cheerleaders is un-American,” said Althouse, and so he was glad when he learned cheerleading squads and bands would be allowed at games.
Penns Valley senior cheerleader Mackenzie Linn said it was hard getting the crowd riled up for the game without a student section, but she was glad to be out there cheering on a Friday night.
“It was really exciting when (coach) Megan (Henry) said we would be able to cheer. At first she said we might not be able to cheer at all, and now we are not allowed to be at away games, but at least we can be at home,” said Linn.
Her friends at school said they were going to watch the game at home on TV, so at least the sounds of the cheer squad and the band could be heard on the broadcast, she added.
Penns Valley Band Director Daris DeRemer said the band has to deal with even stricter distancing guidelines. Band members spent most of the night spread out 12 feet apart with their instruments in their laps across the field in the bleachers normally used by fans of the visiting team, about as socially distant as you could get. Because their uniforms are dry-clean only, they are not allowed to wear them.
“This year is so different. Everything that was automatic now takes multiple steps to achieve. Simple things like planning drill turned into a project of, how can I space them enough and how can I move them?” said DeRemer.
Ultimately, the band was able to march onto the field in masks, but had to stay in a single block formation. And all its members learned a new command, “for putting the masks on and taking the mask off” in order to play, DeRemer said.
Despite the difficulties, he was grateful for how hard the district worked to keep the students safe, and for having the opportunity for them play and be a part of Friday night.
“They are thrilled to just be here. We are all rusty; many of them haven’t picked up their instruments since March,” DeRemer said.
It is one of the smallest groups he’s had in his 10 years as director, but he added, “They got heart, and more important than size is the spirit and the dedication.”
Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.