Iowa state champion coach: How we persevered during pandemic

By Dan Guttenplan, FNF Coaches Editor

Rick Nelson had encountered several near misses in his quest for a state championship during his first five seasons as the Ankeny High (Iowa) head coach before finally taking his team to the promised land this fall. Nelson shared with FNF Coaches how his team was able to persevere this fall in the midst of a pandemic.

How did you manage to keep your players focused during such a turbulent fall season?

“We lost two players for the third game of the season, but that was about it. It was our nose guard and another starting guard. They came out on Thursday and took them off the field. We got beat that Friday, but we ended up 10-1. We played the same team in the quarterfinals and beat them 28-7. So, it turned out pretty well.”

How did you manage to keep your players healthy all season?

“We talked to them about keeping their groups small. Don’t go to parties. Don’t hang out with people you don’t normally see. Stay in a tight group. That’s what we kept preaching. Make your friend groups small. Nobody ended up having COVID. The two guys who missed a game were close contacts.”

Did you have to change anything about the way you coached this fall?

“We made them fill out a questionnaire every day. We took their temperature every day. Before the workouts, they showed us that. We did workouts in the summer with smaller groups. We usually have 60 to 80 kids in the weight room. We had to do it in shifts of 20. We used the junior high weight room as well, with about 30 over there and 60 at the high school.”

Was the team-building aspect difficult due to the restrictions on the players?

“Seven of the starters on our baseball team were also football players. They made it to the state championship game over the summer, so they couldn’t be around the football team during that time. That was tough. We had to have a special session for the baseball players, and we couldn’t be around them. Our shortstop is also our quarterback, so he couldn’t throw to anyone until August.”

Did you have any fundraisers that helped offset the loss of the ticket sales?

“We’re down quite a bit in football. We did a fundraiser that we always do — selling cards. We’ll do one in February because we need to raise $90,000 for our weight room. That will be more emails and text messages to friends and family. We’ll go through an agency and they’ll collect the money for us. We supply names, numbers and emails, and each kid is responsible for 20 names. Sometimes, we just didn’t have our Thursday night meal. We had to skimp a bit. Coaches usually get nice gear. This year, we may just give them a shirt. We’ll have to make cuts. It’s too bad because we had a really good team, so we would have had really good crowds.”

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