Imagine your starting middle linebacker—in the last 5 minutes of practice, the day before playoffs—has a pass glance off of his pinkie while moonlighting at tight end.

Everything seems fine, until he holds up his gloved paw with the pinkie sitting at a 90-degree angle

“Coach,” he says with a straight face. “It doesn’t hurt. But do you think something is wrong?”

Coach, the gods of football just torched your game plan. What do you do now?

At Merced College—the kid is a metaphor for the COVID-19 pandemic—if you coach at Merced College, you stomp out the embers of the old plan and write a new one.

“The biggest thing . . . is getting them to buy in,” said head men’s basketball coach Allen Huddleston Sr. “That’s what we’re working on now.”

With campuses closed, and California battling a surge in positive cases, the California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA) released new schedules on July 21, pushing every season forward one season.

“Hopefully we can get ahead and see the payoff down the road,” said Blue Devil football offensive coordinator Justin Pinasco.

Football, soccer, basketball, volleyball and water polo will start mid-January 2021. Baseball, softball, swimming & diving and track & field would begin practice late March 2021.

Contests would start two weeks to four weeks later depending on the sport. Championships go as early as late April and as late as the end of June.

“I’ve always been a glass half-full guy,” said head men’s basketball coach Allen Huddleston Jr. “We have more time. What can we do with it? There’s always something positive you can do.”

ACADEMICS

When the CCCAA made its decision, the coach also was asked to submit a new preparation plan to Merced College Vice President of Student Services Michael McCandless, including how to ensure athletes have a good academic start.

“We’re staying calm, encouraging kids to just get started, to get acclimated to Merced College,” Pinasco said. “It will anchor them here and help get them through this situation in good academic shape.”

CONDITIONING

Because the COVID-19 restrictions cancelled CCCAA spring sports, then restrictions were lifted, and then reinstated, all Blue Devils have lost some fitness.

Huddleston Sr. knows young people are easily distracted, so coaches have to rely on the athlete’s personal motivation to run, lift and develop skills.

Still, most of the coaches track it via regular video clips of them performing drills to correct form.

“It’s kind of a ‘by any means necessary’ for a lot of them,” Huddleston Jr., son to the women’s coach, said. “They have to embrace that.”

MENTAL TRAINING

Without meeting face to face, coaches are studying tons of film to prepare their teams for new schemes, to scout opponents and to correct execution.

The CCCAA will likely reevaluate the plan in the fall. In the interim, how will Merced College coaches create game pressure without gathering?

Many coaches run virtual workout competitions, or play video games against their players. For example, the Huddlestons run a conditioning drill on the treadmill where athletes run in 30-to-60 second spurts, going only uphill.

“They’re fighting not to lose,” said Huddleston Sr. “That’s what you have to do in a game. They can’t do everything to prepare their brains, but if they can do something, we will all benefit.”

RECRUITING

Postponing 2020-21 CCCAA athletics also allows coaches to spend more time recruiting, though Pinasco warns, “[The pandemic] will scare some players off, too.”

With more time, Huddleston Jr. is putting it into building stronger bonds with recruits “to talk about their school plans and figure out who they are.”

Everyone is running recruiting traps via Zoom, HUDL, texting, FaceTime, carrier pigeon, etc. Again, whatever it takes.

Huddleston Jr. is also reminding recruits how Merced College can set them up for a four-year opportunity.

“I understand they want to play now,” he said. “We can incentivize [that chance]. They can’t be sitting home doing nothing. I tell our guys, ‘If you’re not working on your game someone else is.”

OLD WAY, NEW WAY

Remember, roughly 270 athletes at Merced College can’t step on campus.

Normally fall sports would be a week shy of starting preseason camp. Basketball would have finished a summer hoops class and played in one offseason tournament. Spring sports would be conditioning with limited access to coaches.

Everything has changed for 2021.

“We’re just waiting to see what will transpire with the state,” Pinasco said. “We don’t have all the answers yet.”

“We’re doing everything we can to keep them mentally focused,” Huddleston Sr. said.

“The world changes, sometimes we resist,” Huddleston Jr. said. “But if we figure out ways to communicate and ask the right questions, we’re going to do just fine.”