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Ben Hampton, Socastee’s new coach, looks toward players running through conditioning exercises in Horry County’s first phase of opening for the season. The phase limits groups to 10 at a time, enforced social distancing, a facemask requirement when not exercising and hand sanitizing often. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

Ben Hampton never imagined his first practice with his new football team would look like this.

It was a hair after 7 a.m. on Monday, and 17 Socastee players he had never met in person were spread around the stadium entrance, waiting to have their temperatures checked. Staff members punched names into tablets for physical and waiver forms, eventually sending home all but eight players from the first two groups.

And Hampton, donning a black wrap-around face mask with a skull design, did his best to make his initial session in the age of COVID-19 feel anything like football.

“It’s a very watered down [version] of what football is and what I would normally be trying to do with the program. It’s a touch-and-go thing. It’s a change in reality for them,” said Hampton, the Braves’ first-year coach. “A lot of things have been taken for granted. This puts that in perspective. They’re still children. We’re dealing with boys we’re trying to turn into young men. But there is so much going on. This is the extra cherry on top. This plays games within themselves. We’ve got to be the rock for them to lean on.”

On Monday, the head football coaches in Horry County were allowed to commence their strategies during the Phase 1 opening. The first stage dictates no more than 10 people to a specific field at a time, adequate distancing during the sessions and no equipment.

While every coach in the district has stated that this could be a great opening step, the restrictions have magnified the acclimation period for the area’s three new head coaches, Hampton, Greg Mance in Loris and Joey Price at Green Sea Floyds.

All three came in with strong resumes. Hampton helped rebuild North Rowan into a consistent winner the last five years, when the team went 42-21. Mance won 205 games at Richlands (Virginia) between 1997 and last fall. Price, most recently a head coach at St. James in 2017, has 240 career victories, almost entirely in North Carolina.

Now, all three are learning about their personnel under previously unheard of conditions.

Even Price, who is no stranger to the area after working as an assistant at Loris last season, was holding his first in-person meeting with his new team.

“I’ve talked to them on text. I’ve talked to them by phone. Kids don’t talk too much by phone; they text a lot,” Price said. “We had one Zoom meeting, but they’re not good about showing up for Zoom meetings. A lot of those kids, they don’t have access to computers.”

Price used Monday not for conditioning, but for logistics.

The Trojans staff checked to make sure each athlete has his physical and waiver forms on file. It went over the protocols for conditioning and the schedule (Green Sea Floyds will use two days this week and three next week for actual drills).

And breaking the ice.

It was much of the same for Mance and Hampton. They were each officially hired on Feb. 17. Price followed suit March 9. On March 15, Gov. Henry McMaster closed all public schools for what ended up being the remainder of the academic year. Hampton’s meet-and-greet with his players and parents was scheduled for three days later.

That left all three getting to know their new teams in a digital format.

For the time being, the in-person sessions can begin, even if coaches are wondering how long it will last.

“In our team meetings, our big stress point since March is we’ve been asking ‘When are we going to have a chance to get back at it?’” Hampton said. “It looks different than anything we’ve seen before. We need to be grateful for the opportunity. It could lead us to the fall and we could have a[n amended season] or we could have nothing at all. But we need to be grateful for the opportunity.”

Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236

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