The COVID-19 pandemic has presented its fair share of challenges for every level of sports over the course of the last 10 months.
Professional athletes saw their season suspended when the pandemic first began, while colleges, high schools and youth sports leagues across the country shut down. Teams were quickly forced to adapt to a new style of meeting through virtual software, all the while hoping the day would come for them to meet again in person.
That day finally came for the Scottsdale Firebirds 9U football team, who culminated a difficult 2020 season with a state championship at the Division I level of National Youth Sports.
“COVID, all the work and the stress, this was like a vacation for everyone,” Firebirds’ head coach Jason Hersh said. “To have each other in this time, it was the one thing we knew what we were doing and why we were doing it. I think that’s what made it so special.”
Hersh, in his third season with the Firebirds and first as head coach, essentially built this year’s 9U team from scratch.
Of the 26 total players on the team, just two had experience playing tackle football for the Firebirds, including Hersh’s son, Max. The lack of experience presented a challenge for Hersh and the coaching staff, which was made entirely of volunteers, some of which without kids of their own on the team.
Hersh and the rest of the coaches had to quickly become acquainted with one another in unique ways due to the pandemic. The team only met online through Zoom from March to the early summer months. Often times, Hersh would bring on professional athletes such as New York Giants receiver Golden Tate, a slew of Los Angeles Chargers and Chaparral head football coach Brent Barnes, where the team feeds into, to speak with players.
The coaches utilized a software to critique stances, workouts and other fundamental drills they sent to players to complete throughout the week. Once finally able to practice in-person to a certain capacity in May and June, the Firebirds had to do so in pods.
A group of eight kids at a time would arrive at the park where the team practiced. Hersh and another coach set up eight individual workstations on the field with cones. Players stayed in their individual areas throughout the practice session, and would exit the park opposite of where they arrived so the next group could come in.
“We made a practice that would normally be two hours last four because of our precautions,” Hersh said.
When cases began to surge in June and July, the Firebirds again resorted to online practices. But it wasn’t just the players involved in the learning sessions. Parents often joined, too.
Hersh said the buy-in from parents this season to abide by all of the strict guidelines helped pave the way for the team’s success.
“A lot of the parents listened to the Zoom calls,” Hersh said. “They were involved. They saw how much work and how much information these kids had to absorb. I think it changed the perception of the parents where they bought in. It was a true family.”
The Firebirds’ season kicked off in October with a condensed schedule. They lost the first game of the season.
Hersh expected to deal with fallout as a result, especially given a large majority of his team had never experienced that feeling in a setting like football. But to his surprise, the kids used it as a motivation factor.
The Firebirds went on to win every regular-season game going forward. In the semifinals, they avenged the opening-week loss to the team ranked as the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs. In the championship, which was played on their home field at Chaparral High School, they beat the No. 2 seed who was previously undefeated.
“We always tell our kids to do their jobs, compete every play and the one we gravitate toward that is one the back of our shirts is, ‘play for each other,’” Hersh said. “We always focused on picking each other up.”
On top of their ability to deliver on the field, the Firebirds did so off of it, too.
Nearly every player had at least a 3.5 GPA while playing. Hersh said several had above a 4.0. The team also came together to donate to local charities and provided over 100 bed sets to foster children at CASA.
The championship in itself would have been enough of a reward for some teams, but the ability to succeed off the field is what made the Firebirds thrive. And they may not be done yet.
Hersh said despite the season only having ended over a month ago, all 26 players have already signed on to compete at the next age level.
“From a father’s standpoint, to see my son and these kids grow and achieve their target, it’s special,” Hersh said. “They now believe they can do anything. There’s an internal fire for them now if they don’t achieve their goals. That’s the fun right there.”