OTTAWA LAKE – Jason Mensing believes high school football can happen this year safely.
Monday was the first official practice of the 2020 high school football season across Michigan. Thousands of athletes put helmets on and started the journey, including Mensing’s Ottawa Lake Whiteford Bobcats.
Like any other year, Mensing said early-season practices are about finding out the personality of his team and what motivates them.
“Every year is different, without question,” Mensing said. “Every year is a new challenge.”
The start of practice this year is certainly unlike any other. While welcoming players, Mensing was busy going through MHSAA safety protocols, including asking a series of health questions and taking the temperature of every player and every assistant coach. With Covid-19 and the worldwide pandemic on everyone’s mind, the football season still started.
“I think the kids just want to be together,” Mensing said. “That’s the biggest thing. A lot of their travel teams that they played on this summer in other sports, those kids might be friends, but those aren’t their classmates. It’s different.”
While practice started Monday, there are still some questions about the upcoming season. For one, teams won’t be able to put on shoulder pads and equipment other than helmets until Aug. 17. In normal years, shoulder pads and then full pads are added gradually during the first week.
Week 1 games this season are scheduled for the final weekend of August, but the MHSAA has not announced yet if competition is cleared to resume. That announcement will be made by Aug. 20.
As a member of the MHSAA’s Representative Council, Mensing has been part of this summer's discussions about Fall sports moving ahead. He’s also part of the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association, serving as its awards chairperson.
He’s a firm believer in football happening this fall.
“It extends beyond football practice,” Mensing said. “It extends to the school experience, to school sports. We know from the last six months that socially and emotionally kids need this outlet. They need to connect. They need to be with one another and with people for their development.”
Mensing points to research that suggests two-thirds of youth today are depressed.
“That’s not acceptable in my world and I think a lot of others,” he said. “We can address that with outlets like arts and athletic programs.”
Playing high school sports, he said, can help teach student-athletes to be safe, to wash their hands, to wear masks during a pandemic and to social distance – in other words, to take the necessary steps to stop the spread of the virus.
“It’s been very, very apparent to me that our young people, out of their need to socialize and engage with one another, are going to,” he said. “What’s concerning me when it comes to the virus and the transmission of it, is that it’s our job to mitigate that and reduce it so it doesn’t get spread. When there isn’t structure and protocols in place and there isn’t an education about why those structures are necessary, the spread is only going to get worse.
“Through sports and our arts programs, we can establish safe routines to educate people on why we need these protocols and why we need to mitigate and slow the spread of the disease.”
Coaches have a unique opportunity to instill the message into their team members.
“It’s a challenge every day because it’s not what they are doing outside of this,” he said. “It’s definitely a challenge. It’s not natural for people to stay six feet apart or wear a facial mask.”
The Tecumseh native played college football at Adrian College, coached for one year at both Adrian College and Siena Heights University and has been a head coach at Addison, Grayling, Owosso, Tecumseh and is starting his ninth year at Whiteford. His Bobcats won the 2017 Division 8 championship after finishing runners-up the season before.
Among changes to this preseason is the elimination of the scrimmage at the end of the second week of practice. Mensing was fine with that move, he said, because it gives the coaching staff a little more teaching time.
“From an instructional standpoint, I think we can have a little more patience,” he said. “We’re not in such a hurry. Our pace can be a little more reserved. We are three weeks out from playing anyone.”
The Bobcats will be young this season after finishing 5-5 a year ago and making the playoffs for the eighth straight season. They do return three of their top four rushers from last season in senior Devon Shaw (883 yards) and juniors Cole Giesige (668 yards) and Levi Hillard (132 yards). Other returning starters include sophomore quarterback Shea Ruddy, tight end Luke Masserant and all-state offensive lineman Noah Bauman.
“We have a long way to go,” Mensing said.
Returning starters and numbers aside, Mensing is optimistic the season will go forward.
“As long as it’s driven by the science and it’s based around us making sure we are following protocols, yes,” he said. “Ultimately if teams aren’t having transmission of the virus, we will have a safer society. Can it happen? Sure.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Ottawa Lake Whiteford football coach Jason Mensing, right, takes the temperature of Cole Giesige prior to the start of Monday’s first practice of the 2020 season. (Middle) Mensing fills in a questionnaire with Devon Shaw. (Photos by Doug Donnelly.)
Caryn Jackson said it “started to hit her” at about noon, some seven hours before kickoff.
An official for football games at both the high school level in Michigan and the college level for the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Jackson started to fully realize what a special event she was about to participate in.
Jackson was assigned to be the head line judge for the Waterford Kettering at Detroit Lincoln-King varsity game last Thursday at Detroit Mercy, but this was a different assignment than any other.
In addition to Jackson, there were four more women to form what’s believed to be the first all-female officiating crew for a varsity football game in state history.
With that in mind, Jackson posted what was about to happen on her X (Twitter) feed hours before the game.
“It had 23,000 engagements in an hour,” Jackson said.
And all this happened without any retweets from her daughter Rikea Jackson, the 2019 Miss Basketball Award winner at Detroit Edison who plays for Tennessee and has over 10,000 followers.
The football game arrived, and right away spectators sensed they were watching history unfold.
The crew of Jackson, referee Nicole Randolph, line judge Delonda Little, umpire RanDee Henry and back judge Kamaria Douglas made history and inspired others during a night that should be impactful for a long time.
And this also wasn’t the first time they’ve led in the officiating world.
Randolph is a Big Ten football official. As noted above, Jackson officiates Division II college football. Douglass, Little and Henry all are college basketball officials as well, and Little in March became the first woman to officiate an MHSAA Boys Basketball Final since 1995 when she refereed the Division 3 championship game at Breslin Center.
Here are thoughts from all five about their unforgettable evening on the football field:
Kamaria Douglas: “It was very well-received, which was an even better feeling,” she said. “There were a lot of people, whether we were in the parking lot afterward or just chit-chatting, who wanted to take pictures. People gave us kudos and flowers and said we did a nice job. It’s one thing to get an opportunity, but also to go out there and do a good job. They want to see more of it. Waterford Kettering’s coach said he was the father of three girls, so it just warmed his heart. He came over and got a picture with us, which was really cool.”
RanDee Henry: “This game, although historic, was even more amazing because I got to do it with friends,” she said. “All of these women have strong friendships on and off the field, making this moment even more amazing and monumental.”
Very honored and proud for the Waterford Kettering Football program for being part of MHSAA history with the first ever all female group of officials for our game. Congrats to all five of them. @WKFootball1 @WKHSCaptains @WSDATHLETICS @MHSAA @michiganhsfca pic.twitter.com/HJvtEMSnXA
— Coach Bob Chiesa (@ChiesaBob) September 22, 2023
Caryn Jackson: “For my children, I always tell them to leave your mark wherever you go and whatever you do,” she said. “Be a part of history. Who knew I would be refereeing high school, let alone doing it with all women? It feels good when I walk the football field and people are cheering just because they see a woman. People say ‘I’m glad you’re here, ref.’ I’ve had young boys walk up to me and shake my hand and say thank you for making history, and that you’re the first female official I have had. That stuff makes me feel good. To do it alongside four other women, that was amazing.”
Delonda Little: “Women are breaking barriers, and it’s nice to be acknowledged and to have some gender equality out there,” she said. “We all felt good to get the support during the game from the coaches and the fans. Both coaches told us we did a great job. Coaches wanted to take pictures with us to be a part of the historical moment. Fans as we were leaving told us we did a good job.”
Little continued: “Women, we still have a long way to go. But it’s good we are getting the acknowledgment we deserve. There should be gender equality.”
Nicole Randolph: “The players kind of got the adrenaline going,” she said. “I was already a little nervous going into the day because it was really happening. When I got to the field, I was calm, cool and collected. When we all walked onto the field, the players were excited, and the coaches were excited. They asked for pictures and said they wanted to take pictures at the end of the game because they had never seen this many female officials at a game.”
Randolph continued: “We went in and said ‘Hey girls, this a great opportunity. Let’s make the best of it so we can continue to open the doors for other young ladies to continue to aspire (in) our footsteps.’”
PHOTO Thursday's crew at Detroit Mercy, from left: head line judge Caryn Jackson, umpire RanDee Henry, referee Nicole Randolph, line judge Delonda Little and back judge Kamaria Douglas. (Courtesy photo.)