STATE COLLEGE, Pa. _ In the heart of downtown, on the corner of South Fraser Street and West Nittany Avenue, a little less than 2 miles from the 110,000-seat college football mecca that is Beaver Stadium, sits another, cozier stadium, one nestled into an old sinkhole.
Memorial Field is home to State College High School, a program that won double digit games each season from 2016-2019, and took six trips to the PIAA State Playoffs in the past seven seasons.
But in the pandemic year of 2020, playing was winning. And the Little Lions, whose nickname winks at nearby Penn State, were lucky just to get on the field.
“I’m just proud of the kids and grateful for the opportunities,” head coach Matt Lintal said. “All throughout the process, if you would have told me we would have the number of games that we’ve had, an opportunity to play at home, I would have said, ‘Heck yeah, we’ll take it and be extremely grateful.’”
And, as much as it may sound like a melodramatic sports movie, players say they learned a lot from this season — different lessons than ever before, and maybe better ones.
“Cherish every moment. You don’t know what’s next. We still don’t, that’s how it is in life,” senior defensive lineman and captain Steven Guthoff said. “We got to see first hand what it’s like to be told no, to get our season taken away, and back, and all this stuff. There were times in practices, grueling heat and it’s just like ‘Wow, this is terrible,’ but at the same time there’s no place I’d rather be.”
State College ended up playing seven games, and finishing with a 4-3 record — respectable but hardly stellar for the proud program, when viewed strictly by final scores.
Yet while the season may not have been perfect for State College, senior safety and wide receiver Carson Franks knows he has made memories that will last a lifetime, something the coronavirus pandemic couldn’t take away from him.
“We fought really hard for this team and I’ll never forget the feeling of being able to go out on Friday nights,” Franks said. “Maybe it wasn’t quite what we deserved or what we wanted, but we still made the best of it.”
“You're just constantly trying to figure out how to put these puzzle pieces together without knowing what the end result is.” State College Athletic Director Chris Weakland
State College Athletic Director Chris Weakland was central to many of the discussions that resulted in State College taking the football field this autumn.
Weakland said State High first felt the impact of the virus on March 16 and then, 14 days later, there was a Pennsylvania-wide athletic directors meeting over Zoom to discuss protocol moving forward. Such meetings continued weekly throughout the spring and summer.
In addition, Weakland met with all of State High’s coaches every other week to discuss the latest information — information that was constantly changing.
Weakland compared trying to make tough decisions, such as which teams should play, and if so when and under what conditions, choices involving the health and safety of students, to a “mystery puzzle” his wife bought this spring.
“You get all these puzzle pieces, but you don’t have the picture,” he said. “This one was special because it had two puzzles in the same box. So you have a piece and don’t know if it was for the one puzzle or the other puzzle.
“You’re just constantly trying to figure out how to put these puzzle pieces together without knowing what the end result is.”
In addition to the meetings at State High, Weakland also had to balance discussions with the Pennsylvania state government, the PIAA, the Mid-Penn Conference and PIAA District 6 representatives.
“We were trying to balance four different entities to try to piece those puzzle pieces together,” Weakland said. “It was a big challenge because again the PIAA just wanted to crawl before they walked. They weren’t sure how much they could put down in place that would go against the governor’s orders.”
Gov. Tom Wolf recommended on Aug. 7 that no high school sports resume until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
That meant when State College finally decided to move forward with its plan for contact and non-contact sports on Sept. 17, it was not adhering to government recommendations.
Meanwhile, starting on July 15, Lintal was given clearance to start voluntary workouts as long as activities took place outdoors.
“It felt like Christmas. It was amazing,” Lintal said. “I hadn’t seen my players since March and they’re a big part of my life and my coaches’ lives.”
Prior to this, players on the team, including Guthoff and Franks, took matters into their own hands and held workouts without coaches, which included chance meetings with a couple Penn State football players, who shared the town and the same uncertainty surrounding the fall football season.
“We were all just working and trying to lead practices on our own without coaches or anything. It was really just up to us,” Guthoff said. “We actually had run-ins with people like (Penn State quarterback) Sean Clifford, (tight end) Pat Freiermuth and all those guys because that’s all we could do and that’s all they could do.”
State College eventually put helmets on in September, before playing its first game of the season on Oct. 2.
That all happened because the State College Board of Directors gave the final go-ahead for the school district to compete in fall sports. The board voted on two plans — one for contact sports and one for non-contact sports, with different regulations and safety features depending on the sport.
The non-contact plan passed unanimously, while the contact sport plan passed by a 7-2 vote.
Lori Bedell was one of these two votes, as the potential risks and unknowns of the coronavirus concerned her.
“One of the biggest obstacles to seeing sports through was really we don’t want to make this worse,” Bedell said. “We don’t want to be the cause of more infections. So, for me it was like is this just another risk factor that might be a bridge too far.”
Franks and Guthoff both spoke at the Sept. 17 board meeting, and will never forget the feeling of ecstasy that came with realizing the 2020 season would take place.
“I was watching with my family and once they voted for the season to start, they all just went crazy,” Franks said. “It felt so good to see all of our hard work pay off because our whole team, the whole State College community worked so hard and fought so hard to make it happen.”
Guthoff remembers the meeting getting “heated” and still gets goosebumps when talking about that night.
“It was a big sigh of relief because the whole summer, the whole build up, it always was like ‘Are we even going to play?’” Guthoff said. “Now, the big issue is the team ahead of us. It was the best feeling in the world knowing that I could put the pads on and give it my all.”
Lintal, who also serves as a school counselor for the State College School District, was especially concerned about the mental health of his players and ultimately saw everything come together in what was a very rewarding feeling by the players getting a social outlet in a safe manner.
This was the biggest victory of the season for Lintal.
“Regardless of Friday night records, that was a win,” Lintal said. “It’s been trying day to day, hour to hour, some days, but they’ve found a way to keep pushing forward and giving these kids a great opportunity and a safe opportunity.”
The season also benefited Lintal, as the students provided a sort of therapy for the coach.
“They were steady, constant, because every day we got to practice and it was awesome — the energy, the enthusiasm,” Lintel said. “The resilience of the kids was tremendous.”
They needed a positive attitude, knowing there was a constant threat that it could all be taken away at a moment’s notice. Franks tried not to dwell on the possibility of the season unraveling, even though the thought stayed in the back of his mind.
“I took it one day at a time. I didn’t focus on it,” Franks said. “I was really appreciative of the fact that we were allowed to be out there.”
Guthoff said he likely won’t play football at the next level, and with his senior year being his last chance to play, this uncertainty could only be described as “nerve-racking.”
“Like the (Philadelphia) 76ers say, you gotta trust the process,” Guthoff said. “We’ve all been waiting to play our senior year forever. I know this was my biggest chance to play and even if there’s no fans just getting out to play with the guys I’ve grown up playing with.
“Just having to go through every day and think ‘Wow, there’s a chance it doesn’t happen’ was really tough.”
This uncertainty also led to Guthoff and his teammates not taking any moment for granted.
Guthoff especially remembers the sweaty summer practices and how, even during sprints, he was grateful.
“I’m thinking to myself, I’m just happy to be out here because there’s a good chance this couldn’t have happened,” Guthoff said. “It was just awesome, it ended up being like a blessing in disguise.”
According to Franks, the practices were different in the beginning of the season as they weren’t able to do any contact activities until the Board of Directors approved them. Also, while drills were being completed, players on the sideline always stood distanced.
Franks also said the coaches were constantly spraying down the balls with disinfectant and this season State College only had one in-person film session, a drastic difference from years past.
State College players weren’t regularly tested for the coronavirus.
But what was toughest of all?
“Obviously scheduling, transportation and officials, those challenges are always going to be there,” Weakland said. “But what was most difficult for me is just the emotional side with our kids and our coaches too because they’ve invested a ton of time and energy.”
After months of the planning, discussions and hours spent on a practice field, the big night finally came for State College on Oct. 9 — the first home game of the season.
Franks will never forget the feeling of walking down the ramp of the newly renovated stadium for the first time in two years, due to construction. State College didn’t play its 2019 home games at Memorial Field.
He remembers the feeling of locking arms with his teammates and hearing the familiar notes of the State High fight song.
“I missed that feeling so much. It was just indescribable,” Franks said. “That’s the only way I can put it.”
While a majority of the seats in the stadium were empty, Guthoff felt the energy of a town pouring into the stadium as he prepared to run onto the turf.
“You still felt like the whole town (is) around you,” Guthoff said. “I never really appreciated that feeling … until I walked down senior year, as a captain and getting to lock arms with a coach and my best friends, it just came back to moments when we did not think we were going to be here at all, let alone walking down together side by side.”
At one point this fall due to a unique schedule stemming from the coronavirus, State College played three games in eight days, including the PIAA District 6A championship game, which resulted in a one-point loss for the Little Lions to Altoona.
But even through the compressed schedule, State College continued to fight.
“It was hard physically, but I think it was a testament to the adversity that our team was put through this year,” Franks said. “There could have been so many possibilities where we said, ‘Oh that is too many games, like we don’t want our kids to get hurt’ we said, ‘We’re all for it. We’ll tackle it head on,’ and that’s what we did.”
While his players continued to hang tough through unusual circumstances, Lintal also grew and lived a lesson he had preached for years.
The State College football alumnus, who played college football at Franklin & Marshall College, kept coming back to a simple six-word phrase — “just be where your feet are.”
Lintal said this phrase reminds you to be present in the moment, something that he actively had to live to get through this unprecedented time as a coach, husband and father.
“When I’m home and being a husband and a father, be a husband and a father, when I’m at practice, be the best coach I can be,” Lintal said. “Don’t worry about tomorrow, because we may not have it. So, we wanted to make sure that every second we had together, we made the most of the opportunity. We really, truly were present in that moment.”
At the end of the day, Guthoff won’t remember the 4-3 record of his team this season, which ended with a 45-21 victory over Hollidaysburg on Nov. 13. Instead, he will remember the laughs, the tears and being able to hug his teammates and coaches.
“These are my brothers for life,” Guthoff said. “I would do it 100 times again with these guys and that’s something I’ll cherish forever.
“On paper it might not be the best State High football team in the past couple years, but I’ll say we were the closest by a million miles.”