SEBRING — When the Valley's first high school football game of the pandemic ended last Thursday, the McDonald Blue Devils had a lopsided win over the hometown team.
But to residents and participants in this small community in western Mahoning County, it was a time to celebrate.
The day after McDonald beat Sebring McKinley High School by 40-6, Brian Clark, the Trojan's athletic director, wrote in an email to school employees, "We were victorious last night because we showed everyone that Sebring stepped up first!”
Senior Frankie Lozoya, a three-sport senior, said the moment before kickoff was “honestly a blessing, knowing I get to play my senior year.”
Clark said the McDonald-Sebring game was one of eight he noticed being played last Thursday (Aug. 27), a day ahead of when most high school teams kicked off. The game began at 6:30 p.m., 30 minutes ahead of the others.
“We were the first game of the year,” said Lozoya, the Trojans’ center on offense and defensive tackle.
For Clark, a challenge kicked into high gear on Aug. 18 when Gov. Mike DeWine finally announced, after weeks of hedging, that he would approve contact sports resuming in Ohio.
“It was very exciting,” Lozoya said of the announcement. “A lot of work [already] had gone into getting ready.”
However, DeWine did not sign the Ohio health order until the next day. That’s when high school athletic directors discovered they would be severely limited in spectator capacity — the lesser of 1,500 or 15 percent of permanent seating.
Sebring has one of the smallest stadiums in Mahoning County — 1,600 seats. That meant a spectator capacity of 240.
A member of the Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference, Clark and the league’s other ADs and superintendents had Zoom meetings the next four days to discuss the season. Clark said the league decided visiting teams would get tickets for 15 percent of the seating on visitors' sideline. At Sebring, that means 75 tickets.
Before the capacity limits were released, Clark had hopes that each participant’s family — football player, band member and cheerleaders — would have access to four tickets apiece. With that not possible, Clark and his staff went to work getting the stadium ready and finding a way to maximize tickets for families.
“The whole thing pulled together in one week’s time to make sure we could do this for the kids,” Clark said. “It happened really fast.
First, he asked those who normally use passes to get into games — school employees and school board members — to pass on tickets unless a student in the family was part of the game.
Clark said one of the hardest parts of his job is knowing that a lot of members in the community want a ticket to attend, but they aren’t available.
“For our games, it’s going [mostly] to be two tickets per participant,” Clark said.
Road teams aren’t as fortunate. Clark said Mineral Ridge, which plays at Sebring tonight (Sept. 4), has 45 players and there are only 75 socially-distanced seats on the Sebring visitors’ sidelines.
“So you can’t give two tickets per [player],” Clark said. “Each school has to figure out, based on their roster size, how they are going to allocate tickets.”
Clark said there were unfilled spaces at the opener that could help someone who missed out get in tonight. One reason was moving the band out of the home stands to the end zone.
He estimated there were 60 fans on the visitor's side and 70 in the home stands.
“We had social-distancing on both sides of the field, we had sanitizing stations,” Clark said.
Clark said workers such as those running the scoreboard, PA system, chain crew and concession stand, do not count as spectators because "they are actually there to work.”
As for the concessions, everything sold was prepackaged — no fresh french fries or sandwiches. Booster Club members directed traffic at the concession stand.
No tickets were sold at the gate.
As for the seats, Clark said, “the order wants alternate rows used, staggered seating. Getting your stadium labeled is very time-intensive. There were a lot of people at our school who stepped up to the plate.”
Custodians deserve a shoutout, he said.
“They hauled the bleachers from the softball field so the band could have seats,” he said. “We kinda created a mini-[bandshell] down by the scoreboard.”
On the field, the players were appreciative of getting a chance. For his final football season, Lozoya said the players began their August training “preparing just [like it was] any other season, planning to open up on that Thursday.
"We never had doubts that we weren’t going to play.”
Still, the Trojans almost missed going first. On Aug. 8, McDonald’s football team shut down for two weeks because a player tested positive for coronavirus.
When the suspension ended, Lozoya said McDonald had just three practices before the opener.
“They are very disciplined over there,” said Lozoya of the Blue Devils, perennially one of the MVAC’s strongest teams.
Because of the OHSAA tweaking the football playoffs this fall to include every team that wants to participate, Lozoya said he hopes Sebring enters the postseason.
“I’d love to play in the tournament,” he said.
Lozoya’s last competition was on March 3 when Sebring’s basketball season ended with a Division IV district semifinal loss, 64-56, to Southern at Struthers Fieldhouse. Lozoya hit a 3-pointer in that game.
Next for him should have been baseball season, but on March 12, the Ohio High School Athletic Association, under orders from DeWine, shut down all high school sports as schools were closing because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was kind of disappointing, a season that I missed out on,” said Lozoya, the Trojans’ catcher.
Of his varsity sports, Lozoya said he prefers “basketball and football about the same.”
In football, he prefers “defense. I like hitting people.”
This is Lozoya's second season on the line. As a freshman and sophomore, he played running back and tight end/wide receiver. Switching provided a challenge as playing up front requires different skills and adjustments.
He calls the moment when the ball is snapped as “exciting and nerve-wracking, at the same time. You get nervous because you never know if you’re going to make the block.”
In basketball, where Clark is his head coach, Lozoya split time at guard and forward.
“I honestly play all around,” said Lozoya when asked if he was a forward or a guard. “But I like playing forward a little more.”
His favorite teacher is Nicole Mathias who taught him freshman English and inspired him to try harder in the classroom.
“She’ll push you to your limits and she doesn’t leave anyone behind,” Lozoya said. “I never really liked school and she kind of made it fun. She’s just a very awesome and nice person.”
Next spring, Lozoya’s playing days will be over. He’s training to become a welder, taking classes at the Mahoning County Career and Technical Center in Canfield.
“It’s very interesting and [welders] get paid very well,” said Lozoya, who added that mathematics is his favorite subject. “It ties in a lot with what I do for welding — a lot of measurements and stuff that you have to learn.
“You can’t be off [in measurements] or the whole [project] will be messed up.”
Clark said his emotions caught up with him the day after the opener. He shared them in an email to staff thanking all for helping.
“I think anyone who was there knows that we were able to conduct a safe football game,” Clark wrote. “I know deep down our kids on the football team, cheer squad and in the marching band appreciate everything you all did for this to happen
“I cried when I went home last night thinking about seeing them do somewhat normal school activities that many of us thought couldn’t happen,” he continued. “They ran and tackled, they cheered and executed jumps, they played and marched, they smiled and laughed, they had a great night.”
Clark said school board members won’t attend games “until we get a handle on capacity limits.”
He said some will stay away the entire season ‘if it means our families can come and watch their kids play.