‘Battle of the Bridge’ rivalry marks start of the new normalcy for high school sports

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For the first time in months, things are expected to return to normal — make that the new normal — this Friday with the resumption of high school football.

The delayed season opens with traditional rivals Nease and Ponte Vedra highs kicking off the season with a non-conference “Battle of the Bridge” game at Panthers Stadium.

But expect changes – a lot of changes.

If you aren’t the parent of a varsity football player, or a member of the Nease band, dance team or cheerleading squad, you can’t watch the game in person. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the limited return of fall programs, attendance is limited to 30% capacity at all events. For football, that means a total of 600 fans with 450 tickets going to the home team and 150 to the visitors.

If there are any unsold tickets, they will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis to seniors from the home team.

That’s not likely to happen with Nease and Ponte Vedra, Panthers Athletics Director Matt McCool said.

“There’s always a demand for tickets for this game,” he said. “Now we only have 600 tickets.”

Schools, along sports programs, were shuttered on March 13 by the coronavirus. Health department, emergency management, school and athletic officials have worked for months developing a plan to get athletes back in the game and fans in the stands. But to do it, considerable changes had to be made.

Parents of athletes, band members, cheerleaders and dancers have been given a private link to purchase two tickets for each household, according to Ponte Vedra A.D. Erik Frank. If there any extra tickets, they can be purchased at Go Fan on game day. No tickets will be sold at the stadium.

Fans will be required to socially distance, McCool said. And unlike last week’s game at Baker County that’s received national attention, distancing and the use of facemasks is required in the stadium, except when seated.

“We had to measure out the stadium and figure out how much space we had with the bands,” McCool said. “We will be monitoring the guidelines. It’s real important we follow the guidelines so we can continue our sports and keep everyone as safe as possible.”

Fans without tickets will not be permitted in the parking lot, McCool said. Fans also will not be allowed to congregate along the fence outside the game.

Additionally, players and coaches will be allowed to stand between the 10-yard lines to insure additional distancing.

“The kids and coaches have been working for a long time — not just here, but everywhere — to make this happen,” McCool said. “We’re going to take it one week at a time, but it’s going to be nice to enjoy some sense of normalcy again.

The game will be livestreamed on nfhsnetwork.com to those who can’t get tickets. Fans must subscribe to the network, and to watch Friday’s game, enter “Nease” on the search bar.

Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.

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