Amid another COVID-19 surge that has already caused games to be canceled in Southern California, high school football players returned to practice Friday in about half of the Bay Area, hoping for a semblance of normalcy just months after completing a spring season that was anything but routine.
From Valley Christian in South San Jose to Serra in San Mateo — and all points within the boundaries of the Central Coast Section — football players were thrilled to put on the shoulder pads and helmets after spending much of the summer in shorts and T-Shirts while conditioning or participating in 7-on-7 passing camps.
North Coast Section schools, which include the likes of De La Salle, Pittsburg and Clayton Valley Charter, start Monday.
“It’s a completely different game when pads come on,” Valley Christian quarterback Jakson Berman said. “Everybody knows that. You can actually see who’s here to play and who’s just here for 7-on-7. You can have a great 7-on-7 athlete who does not know how to play real football.”
The mood wasn’t dampened even as teams practiced under ominous skies brought on by smoke from the massive Dixie Fire in Butte and Plumas counties.
“I love running and I love weightlifting, but it gets to a certain point where I’m itching to get pads on,” said senior Nathan Elu, a 6-foot-5 offensive tackle, who had to wait one more day before the pads come out at Serra. “Some people will probably think I’m crazy for it — and I probably am a little bit — because I do love football.”
At Valley Christian on Friday, it was largely back to pre-pandemic conditions. Players practiced together rather than the small groups that were required in the spring to prevent outbreaks of the virus, and nearly all of the coaches were maskless. (Indoors, the entire team must wear masks.)
The only abnormality was the number of players on the field.
Mike Machado, beginning his 25th season as a high school varsity head coach, said the pandemic caused some players and their families to move out of the state and some parents to not allow their kids to play the high-contact sport.
Valley Christian typically has 50-plus players on its varsity roster. The Warriors have 30 players now.
“It’s a tough situation,” Machado said. “But I’m not going to tell people they’re wrong for thinking what they’re thinking. … Our guys will compete. I know that. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
The scene at Serra on Friday was only slightly different than any other afternoon this summer. Many of the Padres stuck around to train together on campus. But it was also a busier summer on the collegiate camp circuit for Serra’s players than any other that coach Patrick Walsh can remember.
Walsh attributes that partially to the talent on his roster but also the lack of exposure for all California athletes amid the pandemic-induced shutdowns last fall and shortened season in the spring.
“It’s been a unique summer in the sense that our kids did more than I’ve ever seen them do,” Walsh said. “The kids in California didn’t get seen last year as much as Texas and everyone else, so there’s stress there from the kids and the families that I understand.”
Friday was the first time Walsh was able to gather the whole team since the end of last spring, when the Padres won all five of their games and finished atop the West Catholic Athletic League in the abridged spring season.
Valley Christian was runner-up to Serra in the WCAL. Now that Valley is back on the field, does it feel normal?
“We had a summer and that made it more normal,” Machado said. “We had a 7-on-7. We didn’t have anything. We never had a (positive) case. We’re going to do everything we can to be cautious and keep our kids safe. But these kids are young and healthy. I don’t see a need to run and hide.”
Entering his second season at Menlo-Atherton, coach Chris Saunders doesn’t know normal — not at least with the Bears, who he led to a 5-0 record in his first, abbreviated season at the helm.
Saunders doesn’t expect COVID-19 issues to disappear this season. There were few masks — and no pads yet — at practice outdoors Friday, but new mandates require masks to be worn in indoor spaces, such as the weight room.
“It’s unavoidable. We’re going to be dealing with it all season,” Saunders said. “I think it’s naive to think that things are back to normal. I’d be very suspicious of any program that doesn’t have to deal with it this year.”
On their first day back on the field, Saunders witnessed a one-handed interception by senior cornerback Jeremiah Earby, who is fielding Pac-12 scholarship offers after a breakout spring. There was no soundtrack to practice, but star receiver Jalen Moss was dancing nonetheless. Between Moss and senior quarterback Matt Macleod, the Bears return both pieces of their top passing connection in the spring.
“We had a loaded roster last year, which made for some of the easiest coaching I’ve done in my life,” Saunders said.
At Palo Alto High, coach Nelson Gifford raved about the passion his players brought to practice.
“By feeling normal, it felt abnormal,” Gifford said. “It’s been such a long time. During the summer, you had a lot of normal activities. The COVID numbers were down. We’re practicing. We’re playing other teams (in 7-on-7). But now we’re in the fall with helmets on, running practice. Man, it feels incredible.
“They had so much energy. I have to say, as far as first practices go, this might be the best first practice I’ve ever had, just in terms that the coaches are excited, the kids are excited. Everyone is always excited that first day, but there was something different.”