Chris Barrett refused to go for the easy answer this week when asked what was different about the 2020 high school football game between Terre Haute North and Terre Haute South.
"There will probably be less distractions," said the North coach, who had been quarantined and missed the Patriots' last two games (no one in the family turned out to be sick). "That will allow everyone to focus on what you're there for."
Barrett's absence — defensive coordinator Alex Bettag was acting head coach for a win at Indianapolis Tech and last week's loss at Bloomington South — has been just one of the unusual occurences created by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Friday night's game and its 500-spectator limit will be different than most.
But in the end it will be a North-South game, and each team has been able to call on an extraordinary leader to get it through some of the rough spots.
Kickoff is 7 p.m. Friday at South, and Jack Dailey of the Patriots and James Mallory of the Braves will be ready. Barrett and coach Tim Herrin of the Braves used the same word — "ideal" — to refer to them.
"When you try to develop players and create the ideal football player, Jack is that," Barrett said. "He tried to make everybody around him better, he's very coachable and he takes coaching very well. He's the kind of kid who keeps you in coaching."
"The ideal football player to be coaching," Herrin said about Mallory. "Hardest worker on the team, a two-year captain, No. 1 in his class . . . a great student-athlete as well as a great football player."
One of the obvious differences in the 2020 season is that for quite awhile there was no contact allowed between teams and coaches. But if some kids wanted to get together on their own . . .
Dailey organized workouts among his teammates on his own, and indicated this week that he wasn't always concerned about maintaining friendships as a result.
"It's my responsibility to keep everyone doing what they're supposed to do," said Dailey, also a two-year captain (both he and Mallory were chosen twice by their teammates). "Sometimes it felt like I might be a little too [strict], but the rest of our season is not promised. Friday is not promised . . . we have to keep masked up, and not let dread and worry take over."
"The kids recognize his consistent behavior," Barrett said of Dailey.
Asked about the differences between this season and last, Mallory had a response similar to Dailey's.
"Offseason prep," he said was the biggest difference. "Masks are the biggest thing. We have to do everything right so we can have the best chance to have a season."
Mallory is one player who has found a bright spot in the pandemic. His father is Indiana State head coach Curt Mallory, whose season has been pushed back to the spring.
"This is the first time he's been able to watch every game of mine," Mallory said. And with the Braves off to an 0-3 start, being part of a coaching family enables James Mallory to have some perspective.
"The best thing about having my dad is that he can build me through a loss," the senior wide receiver said. "He tells me things we did right, and he tells me what I need to do to be a leader."
Other differences in the 2020 season involve quite a bit of extra work for the coaching staffs.
"The biggest difference is getting started [with practice]," Herrin said. "Everybody has to be checked in . . . we're trying to use the locker room as little as possible and the [coaching and maintenance] staff is doing all the extra cleaning."
"We have to worry about all the other protocols," Barrett said.
South has had some injury problems early in the season, Herrin pointed out, but they weren't the ones he expected his team to have.
"I was worried about injuries, because of the lack of summer lifting [as a team]," he said. "But we've held up physically better than I anticipated, and that's a credit to the kids and what they did in the offseason."
Although North is 2-1 going into Friday's game, Barrett said that doesn't mean the Patriots are favored.
"Anybody can win this ballgame," he said. "It's a rivalry game, and that brings out the best and the worst in everybody. The emotion will still be there, and we'll have to bring our 'A' game if we want to be in this game."
"[North has] a couple of different weapons on offense and is very solid on the defensive side," Herrin said. "They make you have to work your way down the field, so for us we have to be disciplined on offense and minimize mistakes."
James Mallory still sees a bright future for his team, and he hopes winning starts for the Braves this week.
"I still feel pretty confident," he said. "We have to figure out some mistakes, but our record does not reflect our skill."
Dailey had been "really looking forward to a big crowd" for his senior North-South game, he said this week, but he's more than grateful that the game will be played. How important was it that he was able to play his senior year, he was asked.
"I would say life and death," said the senior, who is applying to West Point and hoping to have a chance to play there — or somewhere else. "[Playing this season] is huge in determining how my life turns out."