HELENA — Carroll College defensive back Rex Irby was home in Boise, Idaho during the coronavirus pandemic.

He looked out behind his parents’ house and noticed a hill similar to the one athletes run up and down behind Nelson Stadium.

“It was nice because it kept me in shape,” Irby said.

Irby came back to Carroll College after Gov. Steve Bullock announced that Montanans could gather in groups of 10 or fewer. The football coaches opened up the weight room late last week for voluntary in-person workouts.

Now, it has become a scheduled routine as coaches help their players get back into shape for the 2020 season that starts in three months.

“It feels great to get back in here with the guys,” Irby said. “I missed them.”

While all the athletes were in quarantine, coaches still handed out specific workouts through Zoom meetings, but as soon as Irby started lifting traditional weights with new strength coach Ryan Springer, he could see a difference.

“You have no idea,” Irby said. “You don’t know how much you miss it until you can’t do it. It’s been awesome.”

For the football players who returned to Helena earlier, like senior wide receiver Shane Sipes, there were some workout materials in the shed behind the PE Center but, even then, they had to get creative.

“There’s a tire and some plates. We just had to come up with our own workout,” Sipes said.

Springer, who was hired this past March to take over as strength and conditioning coach after Alex Kastens took a job with NCAA Division II University of Mary, said he has been impressed with his players’ dedication since returning.

“I think our effort and focus were great this past week,” said Springer, who previously coached offensive line at Montana Tech. “Being away from it has made guys hungry. We look forward to continuing to amp up our training as more guys return to town.”

Getting players back in the weight room has not only been a relief to the players’ creativity to stay in football shape, but also provides a sense that the football season is approaching.

Former Helena Capital alum defensive lineman David Peterson said the return to the weight room was a step toward returning to normalcy.

“Being quarantined and being away from each other, you don’t realize how much we mean to each other,” Peterson said. “I hated being on my own. I didn’t have that teammate to push me.”

It has not been the typical offseason for the Saints as spring practices and the annual spring game were canceled because of pandemic concerns, but the players remain optimistic.

“When it comes down to getting back into the rhythm of workouts, we might be a little bit more behind than last year, but we will be ahead in what we could have been,” Peterson said. “It would have been easy to just lay on the couch and do nothing.”

Since last Friday, the sound in the Saints’ weight room was made of up a symphony of dumbbells clanking and players urging each other on. With the first game three months out, players are just excited to prepare for another year on the gridiron.

“It’s good to be back here,” Sipes said. “It gives us hope that there might be a season.”

While players and coaches are optimistic that the season will happen, the NAIA has yet to announce any details regarding the fall sports seasons as the pandemic still affects the country. NAIA President and CEO Jim Carr said in a letter that the goal is to share a plan no later than July 1 because he knows “institutions are under pressure and would appreciate answers sooner than later.”

Ryan Kuhn covers Carroll College athletics and high school sports for the Independent Record and 406mtsports.com. Follow him on Twitter at @rskuhn

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