Perhaps no coach in Union County is better prepared for the upcoming 2021 winter/spring athletic season than Monroe High’s Johnny Sowell.

For more than a decade, Sowell has been an ironman — serving as Monroe’s head coach in football, basketball and boys track.

Sowell is currently pulling double duty as he prepares the Monroe boys basketball team to start its season the first week of January and the Monroe football team to kick off the year in late February. And while the preseason has been undoubtedly affected by COVID-19, Sowell and his players feel comfortable about where they’re at heading into the new calendar year.

Sowell spoke with The Enquirer-Journal on Wednesday about his team’s preparation for the upcoming season as well as his reaction to the NCHSAA’s new plan for realignment.

Question: How do you feel preparation is going for the upcoming basketball season now that we’re less than three weeks away from the start?

Answer: There are still a lot of rules as far as what you can do. You’re limited on your scrimmaging. You just have to be creative like we’ve tried to be with football. You still have the six feet rule and you have to have your mask on at all times, which is something they added in late during the football prep that carried over to basketball. And the good thing about that is, of my 13 varsity basketball players, 12 of them are football guys, so they have already been used to it. When you start doing your team drills and stuff like that, we’re using more cones instead of bodies so we can keep them separated. We have a scrimmage this Friday — it will be only our second scrimmage — but we’ve gotten a lot of stuff in considering basketball is first this year instead of football. We feel good about getting our stuff in and not rushing like we’ve done in the past.

Question: How have your players adjusted to the new rule mandating masks even while they’re playing?

Answer: A lot of coaches around the county, we had a group text talking about it. When we first started the skill-development, a lot of them were complaining about it because the kids couldn’t get adjusted to the breathing. But most of my guys had already been on the (football) field with masks and had already gotten used to it. When we came in the gym, it didn’t bother us. The problem we’ll probably have is making sure they have the right mask and making sure they keep it up over their nose. They’ll have a mask they’ll travel with and then they’ll have two additional masks. They’ll play with one in the first half and then one in the second half in case one gets sweaty. But with the regular masks they have out there at practice sometimes, you have to remind them about getting the mask up. We had a meeting with the NCHSAA and that’s one of the things they talked about most. They don’t mind the kids pulling on the mask, but they don’t want them putting it below their nose ... They’re going to treat it like the uniform rule. The refs will talk to you for a little bit and then send you the side. And if it comes to calling a tech, they’ll call a tech, but they really don’t want to do that. The best thing to do for us is to continue teaching them that this is the way it has to be done.

Question: What was your reaction to the NCHSAA’s new realignment plan and your new potential conference?

Answer: With the numbers of kids in the building, we feel good about it. There’s a different formula now that benefited us a little bit, because even though we thought we were 3A with just the number of kids in the building, but we felt like we were still 1A/2A in terms of the numbers of kids playing sports. With the new formula, they took some other things into consideration, and we’re now set in what used to be our old conference for the most part. That’s not going to stop us from playing those other teams. Right now, I’ve been on the phone trying to talk to other teams, whether they’re 3A schools or whatever, to try and fill in the (football) schedule, because we have to fill those other five games ... If you go back the old way, Parkwood was with us at 3A and they were with us when we were at 2A, and CATA was the same way, so those two teams are familiar with us. And then you have Forest Hills and West Stanly and Anson — we pretty much played them in every sport every year anyway. Bringing them in made sense. We thought we might not get the 2A/3A split and might get Mount Pleasant and North Stanly, and if we would have gotten those two that would have been very close to the old Rocky River.