The Orangeburg Prep varsity football team will begin preseason practice on Monday, the same time all fellow South Carolina Independent School Association programs are allowed to get on the field in preparation for fall games.
However, the Indians' program is dealing with a bit more challenges than most.
Of course, there was the shutdown of in-school education in the spring and plans for extra cleaning and social precautions this coming school year, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Then add to that the fire this past Tuesday that destroyed most of Brent Lukens Memorial Fieldhouse at Indian Field. The field house contained locker rooms for the home team and visiting team, shower facilities, equipment storage space, field maintenance storage space, a concession stand and public restrooms.
The field house was named in memory of Brenton “Brent” Davis Lukens, a son of Robert and Donna Lukens. He was a multi-sport athlete and sophomore at the school in 2002 when he died at age 16 following a vehicle crash.
Plans are to rebuild the facility.
On the surface, the major change for the football team until the facility is rebuilt will be a lack of locker room, along with more game prep taking place down Willington Road at the OPS lower campus and football practice field (which offers more room for spacing during this pandemic).
The Indians will open the football season at John Paul II in Ridgeland on Aug. 28, prior to renewing the rivalry series with Calhoun Academy with a game in St. Matthews on Sept. 4. The first OPS home game will be on Sept. 11 against Dorchester Academy, fittingly a day that the Indians had already planned to give special recognition to all first responders, law enforcement and military personnel.
OPS head football coach Andy Palmer knows this situation is a teachable moment, as so much of 2020 has been. The setback of the fire and loss of a convenient locker room setting is something he, his coaches and his players can't control. But, the team they put on the field on Friday nights, the effort and teamwork displayed, is something they can control.
"Many of our players have been by here, they've seen this, and I've seen the disappointment on their faces," Palmer said on Saturday. "Set in the pit of my stomach, I feel so much for the Lukens family, the Orangeburg Prep family, and all these people who put in their time and effort to make this facility happen.
"This is going to be rebuilt and all this will fade and come back as something better. But, our goal for our team right now is go win every ballgame. Last year, we had a great team, finished 8-3, lost at Trinity-Byrnes in the second round of playoffs. We've talked about making that next step and making it to the state championship."
Much like the field house represents things like community, having a welcoming place to host guests, and facilitating a safe atmosphere for competition, Palmer sees football Friday nights as a time to lift the collective spirit of alumni, family and friends.
"We want to give people something to feel good about, in these times when there's a lot not to feel real good about," Palmer said. "We want them to come out here on a Friday night, or follow us on the road, and have a smile on their face when they leave.
"We want them to look forward to it all week long, then talk about it on Saturday at the barbershop or store or wherever they go on Saturday morning, then talk about it Sunday at church. We want to give our kids some encouragement as they start a new school year. The school pride grows with how well we perform. I say win them all, but if we go out there and we play with character and we play with pride and we play our hearts out and we happen not to win a ballgame, we played as hard as we could play. This kind of a setback here (damaged field house), it will take care of itself."
Getting back to a somewhat regular school schedule for students, complete with extracurricular activities, is a key focus of administrators, teachers, coaches and parents all over America this year.
"We're thankful nobody was hurt in this situation; The beginning of football season is just about here and our kids are going to be so anxious to be in school and playing any of their sports, just trying to get back to normal," said Jan Stoudenmire, Orangeburg Prep athletic director. "We have to look at this as another obstacle or hurdle we have to overcome. And, of course, the kids are used to jumping over hurdles since this virus started.
"This whole year has been special. Andy is a go-getter and he is going to make the best of what we have going on with football."
Ever since his high school playing days in North Carolina, Palmer has seen how football can boost both the morale of a community.
"Let's combine all the elements, the hope of fall and the hope of football in the South," Palmer said. "It brings families back together and it brings communities back together. This young generation here has had to handle more than any generation that I've coached. They are looking for leadership and for our staff to encourage them to be their best.
"Of course, we have to stay on point that we keep things safe and healthy for all of our players and all of our community. Every rep, every drill, every day will lead into the Fridays. I'm excited to see our kids get back on the field on Monday and then get back to school on the 24th. They can win every day in the classroom, and then win every day on the field."
As for the field house, Palmer has one ongoing thought.
"This was one of the best facilities in all of SCISA, and having spent 25 years (coaching) in the South Carolina High School League, one of the best that I've been to," Palmer said. "This was such a beautiful facility, and it will be again."
Get in the game with our Prep Sports Newsletter
Sent weekly directly to your inbox!