Members of the Santa Cruz High School football team practice on Tuesday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

‘Have to get a little lucky’: High school athletes play through the pandemic

After having to deal with a shortened or eliminated calendar for more than a year, high school sports are back. But Santa Cruz County coaches and athletes face challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic continues into another academic year.

After seeing their seasons delayed, shortened or eliminated altogether since early 2020, Santa Cruz County high school athletes and coaches were in high spirits coming into the new academic year — looking forward to smoother days ahead.

But almost immediately, the COVID-19 reality returned.

St. Francis High School had to postpone its home opener due to concerns over possible exposure from players at another school. Meanwhile, San Lorenzo Valley High had to cancel a home game because of a positive test within the team.

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Because not all students are vaccinated, potential exposure remains a huge issue.

“We have to protect unvaccinated players because they are at the highest risk,” said Santa Cruz High School football and baseball head coach Bubba Trumbull. “We can’t require the vaccine, so we have to stay on top of it.”

Additionally, there is the complicated task of rescheduling postponed games. Many athletes play multiple sports, and coming up with a calendar where games don’t overlap is a significant challenge.

“Typically, you can’t start your second sport until the first one is over,” said Trumbull. “But we can play on Sundays now if we need to, so that helps.”

This is a recent change. In late August, the California Interscholastic Federation said that teams will be allowed to play games on Sundays, but may not hold a practice or any other team activities. Currently, this applies to only fall sports.

But that’s if teams can even play. Due to the relatively small roster size in some sports and at some schools, just one or two positive tests could prevent a squad from playing in several contests.

“It’s easier for bigger schools because they have more wiggle room,” said Trumbull, adding that many of Santa Cruz County’s schools are simply not large enough to maintain a full roster when factoring in COVID-related absences.

Santa Cruz High quarterback Josh Bendix during Tuesday's practice at the school.
Santa Cruz High quarterback Josh Bendix during Tuesday’s practice at the school.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Yet some football programs are doing better numbers-wise than others.

Louie Walters, athletic director and football coach of Scotts Valley High School, says that both the varsity and junior varsity squads have around 30 players on each team. Additionally, the school is about to get better vaccination data on its players.

“Varsity is about 90% fully vaccinated and junior varsity is around 60%,” he said. “With the new guidelines coming out, we’ll be getting more accurate data.”

Despite Scotts Valley’s solid vaccination rate, Walters says that there is still a number of families unwilling to get players vaccinated, though it is relatively small.

“All we can tell them are the guidelines,” he said. “We can’t tell them that they have to get vaccinated.”

Updated California Department of Public Health guidelines state that students participating in sports without masks will be subject to weekly testing regardless of vaccination status. Schools have until Monday to comply with the testing requirements.

Walters said Scotts Valley High is going through the players’ vaccination cards to determine the exact number of vaccinated and unvaccinated players.

As uncertain and difficult as the past couple of seasons have been, he said he is pleased to see student-athletes excited to suit up and play despite the tumultuous times.

“I think the morale is high because the kids have been locked up for a year,” said Walters, adding that he has been worried about the teens spending so much time alone. “They’re just happy to be out there with their football brothers.”

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Santa Cruz High quarterback Josh Bendix agreed.

“I’ve been with these guys since Pop Warner,” he said of relationships stretching back to youth football. “I know exactly how they play.”

Bendix, a senior, has high hopes for the Cardinals despite the team having played just a handful of games in the spring.

“I’m not really worried about being rusty because after the short season we took two weeks off and then started training again,” he said.

Additionally, Bendix said lockdowns and cancellations made him more appreciative of training, the sport and his peers.

“You definitely take stuff for granted. When Coach is mean or you gotta condition all day, you forget to cherish those things,” said Bendix. “You have to treat every day out here like it’s your last.”

Regardless of the year, things can change for the better or worse quickly in sports. In addition to that, though, Trumbull said everyone needs just a touch of a little something else.

“We’re gonna have to get a little lucky,” he said.