WARREN, Mich. - When Dan Rohn and the De La Salle Collegiate varsity football team take the field at Wayne State University this Saturday, the Pilots will be ready.
Rohn, who has led four state championship teams, has been working through the challenges of coaching in the age of a global pandemic.
While conditioning took place over the summer months, team practices were cut short by COVID-19 when the Michigan High School Athletic Association put football, and other prep sports, on hold.
But this month, the MHSAA reversed course after Governor Gretchen Whitmer gave the go-ahead for fall sports. The Pilots put on pads for the first time last week.
“We definitely lost a couple of weeks of preparation,” Rohn said. “The pandemic caused a change in the usual routine and structure. We’ve had to adapt and get the kids ready to play mentally and physically, and it’s so much more difficult.”
In addition to losing preparation time, and the typical preseason scrimmages, the Pilots will be on the field with referees who had no preseason work.
“Referees weren’t even allowed on campus,” Rohn said. “We had intrasquad scrimmages, and you usually have refs there. Not this year.”
Besides the pandemic preparation protocols, face coverings, social distancing, limited numbers in the locker room, Rohn is working with a new set of coaches.
He’s added some coaches but is heavily relying on the experience of past coaches in preparation for Brother Rice this week at Tom Adams Field. Kick-off is 3 p.m.
“We’ve looked at film,” Rohn said. “I know how good Brother Rice has been. But we’ve all lost our first three scheduled games, so we haven’t seen them in action.”
Additionally, the new field at De La Salle, a former practice area, is now a new stadium, and the home field for Pilots’ soccer, a first in the school’s history. Rohn works with interim athletic director Dennis Parks, and other coaches, to figure out how to best use the new facility.
“There have been some logistical nightmares,” Rohn said.
Rohn was hired in early March, the week before schools were shut down across the state, and never had a chance to meet his players in person until summer conditioning. He utilized Zoom meetings to get to know his players.
“I’m still getting to know the kids, and understand them,” he said. “That’s been the hardest thing, to be honest. I feel one of my strengths is building relationships with kids, but it’s hard to build those bridges considering what limited opportunities we’ve had to be around each other.”
Rohn is also getting to know his coaches.
“We’re starting to mesh,” he said. “We’re spending time getting to know each other. I’m teaching them as well. I love coaching coaches.”
Rohn recognizes the limitations of playing a season opener with just nine days to prepare.
“I wish we had more time to get the kids in shape physically,” he said. “That’s my biggest concern. I know every program is facing the same issue, and every coach feels the same way.”
Rohn says that several sophomores are competing for starting spots on the varsity team.
“Without preseason scrimmages, they’re going to be thrown into a difficult situation,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure they are ready to compete.”
Another COVID-19 limitation is the number of people at outdoor sporting events, and so the only fans at the games will be the players’ parents.
“Playing in front of a small crowd will be just one more hurdle and one more obstacle to overcome in order to provide this experience for the kids,” Rohn said. “I’m concerned there could be some sloppy football out there on Saturday. The team that makes fewer mistakes gives themselves an opportunity to win football games.”
And after Saturday afternoon?
“Hopefully, we’ll enjoy a win,” the coach said. “But win or lose, we’ll be focusing on what we need to do to get better.”
Rohn’s goal is to win the Catholic League championship, and more.
“This is one of the best conferences in the state of Michigan,” he said. “We will be working to be the best we can be come November, and compete for the state championship.”