HORACE, N.D. — It’s a unique situation to lay the foundation for a brand new program at a brand new school, and an even heftier feat to tackle during a global pandemic.
Just ask Harvey McMahon, who is building a football program brick by brick amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 hasn’t stopped McMahon from starting to set the standards for the West Fargo Horace Hawks football team, which will compete as a stand-alone freshman team this year. Hawks head football coach McMahon and his ninth-grade players have already begun setting the tone at a three-week camp this summer.
“It does feel really cool to have the first steps and to be able to lay the foundation,” McMahon said. “Granted, it's in the middle of a pandemic, but you gotta be flexible. I think that's part of why they wanted to hire me here, because I can be flexible.”
The Hawks will have freshman teams this upcoming school year, junior varsity for most athletics in 2021-22, and varsity for most in 2022-23. For the first couple of years, Horace will compete at North Dakota Class 2A in football and plans to make the jump to Class 3A, joining the West Fargo Sheyenne Mustangs and West Fargo Packers in the division, as soon as enrollment dictates.
“Like I told the kids, this is the place you want to be. You want to be here because we're gonna have a lot of fun. We're going to work extremely hard. You get to put your imprint into the cement first. We get to make culture, the tone of the whole school. You don't want to pass that opportunity up.”
McMahon applied for the gig in March and found out he’d be the program’s first head coach in June. Before deciding to hold the summer football camp that began in mid-July, McMahon has spent much of his summer piecing together the logistics of having one.
“We just have to be very transparent with each other and communicate,” McMahon said. “The mantra it takes a village to raise a kid, well, it takes a couple villages to raise a program.”
Luckily, McMahon has a solid supporting cast around him in Sheyenne’s head football coach Jeremy Newton, who built the two-time reigning Eastern Dakota Conference Mustangs from the ground up, and West Fargo Packers activities director Jay DeCann. McMahon also has roots with Fargo South.
Before he took the reins of the Hawks in June, the former Valley City State defensive lineman served as the defense coordinator and defensive line coach for the Bruins the past three years.
McMahon, who has the inside track to become Horace's first varsity head coach, currently has 14 freshmen on his team, but he's anticipating he’ll have a roster upwards of 18 kids. The group is a little smaller, but not totally abnormal, he said.
“It’s a very normal class and good numbers for starting a program,” he said.
But what is unusual is Horace’s summer football camp, which looks a lot different than what McMahon is used to.
The Hawks don’t share water bottles. McMahon went out and bought, and had some parents donate, individual water bottles. There’s a hand-sanitizer station on the field, and in between each drill, McMahon has all the kids wash their hands. He also sprays and wipes down all the equipment in between the ninth-grade and middle school camps.
“At the end of the day, there’s going to be some invasive drills where the kids are going to get within six feet,” he said. “But, again, I go back to communicating. If a kid does not feel well, don’t show up. Because we know that we are one positive case from shutting down the whole operation for the summer.”
The added precautions are worth it for the chance at an inaugural season, McMahon said.
The North Dakota High School Association Board of Directors voted unanimously to move forward with the fall season as planned during a video conference July 16, one of the few states to do so at the time. The Board approved “return to competition guidelines” Friday, July 24, via video conference for the upcoming fall sports season.
“Kids need activity and they need structure; this fall more than most,” McMahon said. “They’re just excited to be outside playing with their friends. That's the most important thing to them.”
Currently, the bulk of Horace’s games are in the metro area. The Hawks’ own artificial turf field isn’t built yet, so they’ll play their home games at Sheyenne’s Essentia Health Mustang Stadium this season.
McMahon knows a lot could change by the time the season rolls around. But is he scared at the prospect of having to wait a year to build his program? Not really.
“At the end of the day, it's what I tell the kids, I can't control those things. We can control the controllables, so, wash your hands, sanitize between the drills,” McMahon said. “But the biggest thing is being prepared, so if it does happen, we’re ready to go. If they shut it down, then we'll cross that bridge, and we'll be prepared for that, too. Obviously, we don't hope for that, but we’re gonna prepare like we’re having a season.”
McMahon has already fielded how his group will stack up against the other ninth-grade squads they’ll compete against, most of which are a part of the EDC. He says that’s just another distraction.
“It is abnormal, we’re not going to lie to ourselves. It's very abnormal starting a program in the middle of a pandemic,” McMahon said. “But at the end of the day, it's football. I don't need them to be extraordinary in that regard. I just need them to be extraordinary in their effort when we're doing drills, and in their mentality as far as being focused on learning all these new concepts.”