“We live and breathe football,” said former Northeast High coach Brian Baublitz Sr., who created the flag league this year to give sports-starved teens a chance to play. “To have a fall season without football is really devastating. That was a motivational factor for getting this league together because we would have some resemblance of fall football.”
Baublitz pursued the idea more than two months ago, making rules, organizing teams and convincing referees to officiate games. He received a permit to play at Tick Neck Park, but that was just one of many logistical issues to sort out as the novel coronavirus pandemic has persisted.
He consulted Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks health officials to set guidelines on how to play football while minimizing the athletes’ risk of catching the virus. Players are required to wear a mask or neck gaiter during games. If a player tests positive, the team would be shut down immediately until all players and coaches are tested and receive negative results.
Spectators are required to wear masks and socially distance.
“We probably spent more time going over safety than football,” Baublitz said.
Kathleen Page, an associate professor in the division of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said outdoor activities such as flag football can be done safely with the precautions implemented in the Pasadena league. (Page was not a consultant for the league but spoke independently to The Washington Post.) The fact that the same players take the same field each week, rather than groups traveling to different locations, also helps limit a spread, she said.
“Covid has hit different communities differently,” Page said. “If this league is coming from an area where the positivity rate is less than 5 percent and has been stable at that level, I would be more comfortable with that setup than coming from an area where the positivity rate [is higher].”
Maryland’s seven-day positivity rate is hovering around 3 percent, according to state officials. Anne Arundel County has recorded more than 10,000 total cases of the coronavirus, and its seven-day rolling average is about 10 new cases per 100,000 residents.
The league initially conducted temperature checks but stopped because the county did not require them. Many children and young adults who carry the virus are asymptomatic, so those checks would have limited effectiveness anyway, Page said.
The participants and their families, at least, say they feel safe.
“It’s not as packed, but the league has done a nice job,” said Travis Peterson, whose son, Jack, plays wide receiver and cornerback at Severna Park. “People are trying to socially distance and space themselves out.”
Jack Peterson waited years for his senior season, the thrill of hearing the student section scream as he took the field. Whether he will get that chance is unclear; most Maryland high schools plan to hold an abbreviated fall sports season beginning in early April, but that remains contingent on school districts feeling comfortable enough to begin a season amid a health crisis.
For now, flag football is Peterson’s way to make up for lost time and unleash his competitive side.
“We are not sure if we [will] play tackle in the spring, so playing flag [football] is better than absolutely nothing,” he said.
Elsewhere in the Washington area, the Washington Metro 7v7 Series serves a similar purpose, playing Saturdays at Grizzly Sports Complex in Nokesville, Va. The league, started by Good Counsel quarterbacks coach Sean Strittmatter and others, has players coming from all over the region.
The flag league in Pasadena consists of six “varsity” teams that play on Fridays and four “junior varsity” teams that compete on Tuesdays. The rosters feature players from schools such as Severna Park, Northeast and Meade, while the coaching staffs are a mixed bag of former high school coaches and other volunteers.
“It’s devastating that we are not able to play, but this is a very good outlet for kids, and I love playing with all the guys,” said Kayla Alexander, a senior kicker and girls’ soccer goalie at Northeast.
On a Friday late last month — Week 3 of the seven-week season — the parking lot at Tick Neck Park was crowded, causing cars to overflow to the grass. The public address announcer’s voice, at times reminding spectators to wear masks, could be heard from nearby Route 173. Players competed in two 20-minute halves with a running clock.
Despite the absence of many typical rites of high school football — a band, mascots and even tackling ― the competition provided a shred of normalcy.
“We are just out here doing what we like to do,” Meade senior wide receiver T.J. Speight said. “It feels like a regular Friday night.”
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