Thursday Night (Pandemic) Lights: High School football returns with an eerie sense of promise

Thursday night marked the first night of high school football action in California in 15 months. At Santa Cruz County’s first game, there was plenty of rust on the field and plenty of oddities elsewhere — such as the empty stands where only a few crafty volunteer parents had a live view of the action.

They stood atop cars, climbed the ivy hedges that grow up and over the stadium walls and peered through the wrought iron bars out front of Santa Cruz High’s Memorial Field, looking like prisoners.

And in a way these wannabe fans were prisoners Thursday night — locked away from the chance to fully partake in one of California’s first sanctioned high school football games in 15 months.

A roof with view.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

They could only look on and holler at their friends or loved ones as the aluminum stands across the field from them sat mostly empty, blocked off by yellow caution tape, due to COVID-19 guidelines handed down by the California Department of Public Health.

“This was definitely a little strange,” Scotts Valley coach Louie Walters said after his team completed a properly sloppy 12-0 win over host St. Francis in perhaps the lowest-attended game in county history. “I mean, trying to give a pregame speech without a locker room for starters.”

These stands weren't for sitting.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Walters did his best to rally his team outside the off-limits locker room beforehand, but the energy and vibe were struggling to match the big moment. This was a season opener under the bright stadium lights. But the coaches were having to worry more about face coverings (“Pull the gators up!”) and the strategic placing of social-distancing cones along the sidelines than game-planning.

Both teams had pulled off the necessary COVID testing to be here: Scotts Valley, one of the best-supported public schools in the county was gifted testing by a donor, rather than having to wait on the County Office of Education’s promise to provide it; St. Francis, the small Salesian prep school from Watsonville, also had the funding to make it happen.

St. Francis even had enough to test a band and cheerleaders, which were the saving graces on this frigidly cold Thursday night in March void of the traditional plume of BBQ smoke wafting across the field.

Color-coded spacing along the sidelines.

Because of a delay in getting the tests in hand, the others schools slated for season kickoffs Friday and Saturday weren’t able to test 48 hours in advance of play, meaning those games can’t be played.

It underscores the delicate status of this short taste of a football season — as does the positive test at Serra High in San Mateo this week that is forcing 15 players to quarantine and perhaps miss next week’s season opener.

One key stat rose above all others at Memorial Field, being used by St. Francis as its home field, on Thursday: zero major injuries.

In a stop-start, all-conditioning, no-real-football window that has gone on for months, many sports health experts have named physical safety beyond COVID as their greatest concern. It’s why some of the area’s top players have opted not to play in this truncated season.

The St. Francis drummers keep a little vibe going in the otherwise-quiet stadium.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

The lack of crowd of noise — and the sound of feet stomping on aluminum stands in unison, which can only truly be appreciated when completely missing — was mildly offset by the banging of a handful of drummers, the early-season cheers of the Sharks’ spirit squad and an even-handed announcer in tune with the moment.

“Hey, it’s been 15 months since anyone played football,” he said after what felt like the 15th botched snap of the game, only midway through the second quarter. “We’re all still working out the kinks.”

So were the officials, if you asked the coaches on either sideline.

So were the coaches, if they were being honest with themselves.

Scotts Valley's Caden Stark kicks off Thursday night.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

And most certainly were the players, a large number of whom were shuttling on and off the field with various muscle tweaks, hydration needs and cardio deficiencies. One Scotts Valley player, who had just juked his way to a nice punt return gain, was overhead shouting to no one in particular: “I don’t have the lung capacity for this!”

Felicia George was one of the lucky few stand dwellers. All but a handful who had volunteered to help out were watching from home via livestreams set up by each school.

George, the mom of a St. Francis senior football player and a freshman cheerleader, had finagled her way there by volunteering for game filming duties. Her husband had done one better, getting himself the most front-row seat by snagging a spot on the chain gang.

Catching a view anyway you can Thursday night at Memorial Field.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Below her sat the dad of the St. Francis quarterback, clipboard in hand, helping keep stats for the Sharks coaches. A few others had found their way in for this or that, parlaying teamwork into a small taste of the mini football season that is.

As Walters and his experienced coaching staff held court in the north end zone at Memorial Field after the first of what they hope will be a successful six-game season, Scotts Valley’s first-ever four-year varsity player Caden Stratton reflected on what getting back out under the Friday Night Lights — even on a Thursday in March — means for kids like him.

“It means the world,” Stratton said. “Life wasn’t normal without it. Now with it back, we’re starting to get back on track.”

Friday Night Lights
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
Falcons on the march.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
A view with bars.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
Scotts Valley coach Louie Walters attempts to give his pregame speech outside rather than in the locker room.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
St. Francis quarterback Davin Avila on the rollout.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
Daniel Sullivan leads the Scotts Valley celebration.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

COVID K-12, Lookout’s overview of COVID-19’s impact on education, is among eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of the pandemic this year. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here, and leave feedback and ask questions at the end of this story.


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