Clarksdale High School is down to two Region 3-4A opponents for the upcoming football season thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Greenwood High School, the district champ for the last three years, and Rosa Fort High School out of Tunica both canceled their seasons.
The Wildcats (5-6, 2-2 in Region 3-4A in 2019) finished third in their district last season with the only losses coming to the Bulldogs and Lions.
CHS coach Henry Johnson did not fault Greenwood and Rosa Fort for opting not to play football.
“You can’t really argue anyone that cancels because we just don’t know what this is going to do,” he said. “With this pandemic, we just don’t know what’s going on. When it comes down to the safety of the kids, the students and the coaches, you can’t argue anyone canceling, but we’ve decided to move forward ourselves. That’s basically who were concerned with now. We’re not going to reschedule any games.”
Yazoo City and Gentry High School out of Indianola are the other two Region 3-4A teams left. Both of them lost to Clarksdale in division games the past three seasons.
The Wildcats decision to have a 2020 season is in line with the Mississippi High School Activities Association.
“We’re strictly following our governing body, which is MHSAA,” Johnson said. “The MHSAA has approved us to play. After speaking with our administration here in the Clarksdale Municipal School District, we’re going to guidance of Mississippi High School Activities Association.”
Johnson said one of the reasons he decided to play was to make sure all of his seniors had opportunities to earn athletic scholarships for college.
“I wouldn’t list that as a top reason, but it is a reason,” Johnson said. “You always want kids to be able to go to the next level. Playing football will help them get more opportunities.”
CHS is coming off of a 2019 first-round playoff loss at West Lauderdale 33-8, but Johnson likes his team’s chances to beat the Indians and Rams in 2020 and win the district.
“I think it’s the same approach,” Johnson said. “We’ve just got to take it one game at a time, but I’m sure that’s in the kids heads that we have beaten those teams the last two or three years. I’m sure that’ll motivate them some. We definitely still have to take it one day at a time.”
The Wildcats have been a playoff team all seven seasons of Johnson’s tenure as head coach, but they are yet to win a district championship. He won two state championships as the West Bolivar High School head coach with the first coming in his eighth season. He hopes to match that number by winning a state championship in his eighth season leading CHS.
“Always a motivation,” Johnson said. “This year right here is unlike any other year I’ve ever experienced.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to play, but realistically, it’s going to be hard. We’re just going to try to do it as safely as we possibly can.”
Practice was expected to restart Monday evening at Crumpton Field,
Johnson estimated the new field at CHS was two-to-three weeks away from being ready. He expects the field to be ready for the season opener against Coahoma County High School Sept. 4. The season was originally scheduled to start in August, but the coronavirus caused the MHSAA to delay it two weeks.
“I think it’s an excitement around town,” Johnson said. “You don’t know as far as stadium capacity and things like that. I don’t know how many people will even be able to get in the stadium or if we’ll even have fans. There’s just so much uncertainty about this. It’s just a weird time.”
Johnson said the district is working on ways to live stream the games for fans.
Since CHS has only practiced about five times since March, Johnson was only able to make a projection of who his starters would be based on the past. He has not made any final decisions about his starting lineup.
“I don’t know what parents will allow the kids to play ball,” Johnson said. “All that’s going to play a factor in this thing, too, because some parents will opt out of playing.”
Projected offensive starters are senior running back Sammie Ray, junior running back Leroy Boulton, senior quarterback Tamera Allen, junior left tackle James Walker, senior left guard Almetris Smith, senior center Kendall Mullins, junior right guard DK Harris, senior receiver Josh Hollins, senior receiver DK Bays, senior receiver Quintarius Lester and senior receiver Stephon Washington.
Johnson did not have a projection for the right tackle position.
The plan is to have a multiple formation offense with the run and pass.
It would be Allen’s second season as the starting quarterback. He was injured for the first half of 2019, but having him healthy for a full season could make a difference.
“We’re positive that he can get it done,” Johnson said. “We’re positive that he can be pretty good right now.”
The Wildcats will run a 4-2-5 defense.
Projected starters include senior cornerback Jamarius Dorsey, senior free safety Milton James, senior strong safety Matthew Mixon and senior Kevious Grayson – a transfer from Southaven – is in the secondary. The other cornerback position is up in the air.
Projected starting linebackers are senior De’meric Strong, junior Dominick Hill and junior Justin Davis. Defensive linemen are senior Vincent Sims, senior Quincy Wortham and senior Elbert Hines. Sophomore Torian Williams or Hollins will likely be the other lineman.
Hollins is expected to be the punter and kicker.
Johnson said all of the wide receivers are capable of punt and kick returning.
Normally, Johnson said there are 80 to 85 athletes on the roster, but there will be no junior varsity games this year. As a result, there will be a maximum of 40 to 45 kids on the team, which will help the Wildcats travel and practice social distancing at the same time.
“It’s just an unfortunate situation that we’ve got to try to keep these kids safe,” Johnson said. “We’re going to cut those numbers down. We’re only going to have our varsity kids this year.”
With nearly all of the starters returning from 2019, the goal is to be able to plug them in and play.
“We’re hoping to get these guys on the field with all the experience that we have,” Johnson said. “We know we could just get these guys on the field and turn these guys loose. That’s our hope that we don’t have to do a whole lot of teaching.”
There are five non-district games on CHS’s schedule including when Trinity Christian-Cedar Hill comes to town Oct. 31. Deion Sanders is Trinity Christian-Cedar Hill’s offensive coordinator and his son, senior Shedeur Sanders, is the quarterback.
Johnson said all non-district games will be tough, but the biggest test could be when South Panola comes to town Sept. 18.
“We think South Panola being a 6A team, that’s going to be our toughest opponent probably,” he said. “They are who they are. Nobody has to say much about them. They’re going to be a tough opponent. I would say out of everyone we play, South Panola will probably be the toughest one.”
Preparing for the games will be a challenge.
“We’re going to have to do all that social distance and sanitizing, wearing masks,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to do everything we can do to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus, not contracting the virus. It’s just a lot to do. Football is not a social distance sport. That makes it even more complicated. We’ve just got to do everything we can possibly do from that standpoint. Everybody’s going to have to be involved in it from the parents to the children to the community to the administration to the coaches. Everyone is going to have to play a role in this.”
Ultimately, Johnson hopes to keep his athletes safe and have the Wildcats meet their goals on the field at the same time.
“It’s going to be a challenge with COVID-19,” Johnson said. “I love football. These kids love football. I’m a football coach. The kids want to play. The MHSAA has given us the green light. Our administration is in support of it. We’re going to go out and do the best we can with these young men as safe as possible. At the end of the day, safety is going to be more important than wins and losses. I’ve got to keep these kids safe. I’m charged with that. It’s in a coach’s bloodline to want to win. Ultimately, that’s what we want to do, but we’re not going to sacrifice safety of these young men to win ballgames this year.”
Birley Gipson is the Clarksdale assistant head coach and special teams coordinator, Johnny Maddox is the defensive coordinator, Curtis Kemp Jr. is the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Leon Bell is the defensive ends coach, Greg Wilson is the offensive line coach, Fredrick Brister is the defensive line coach, Jeremy Smith is the linebackers and defensive backs coach, and Willie Pittman will be coaching a little bit of every area. Darius Thurmond is the only new assistant coach on staff.