While you might not immediately think of Friday night football as signaling the end of a pandemic … it at least signals that we are on the way.
That was the feel this past Friday night, on the campus of Oakdale High School, where the Escalon Cougars and Oakdale Mustangs went toe-to-toe for four exciting quarters of varsity football action.
As more schools look to get back to in-person learning and away from strictly distance learning, more sports teams are gearing up and – with vaccines now readily available – officials said there is optimism that a new sense of ‘normal’ is achievable.
Standing on the field for the first time in over 400 days, football players, cheerleaders, the chain gang, coaches – and even the limited number of fans allowed in the stands – relished in the opportunity to be there for what turned out to be a classic battle between two outstanding small school football programs on March 19.
“The only injustice, the only thing missing, was that there wasn’t 7,000 people from each town able to see it,” Escalon head coach Andrew Beam said about the game, which ended with host Oakdale earning a 38-35 victory. “Maybe this is something we play back next year or at some time in the future.”
Beam said that, following the game, as he and Oakdale head coach Trent Merzon met at midfield, there was nothing but respect.
“We heaped praise on each other’s players, how hard they fought,” Beam said, adding that both his coaches and players were treated to the opportunity to see what makes Oakdale special, while Escalon also provided that same opportunity to their opponents.
“There were so many emotions, the simple fact that these kids got to play a football game again,” Beam said. “It has been a year of struggle and setbacks for these kids, we just felt for them.”
Yet, the coach said, when the National Anthem was playing and the teams were standing at attention along their respective sidelines, it felt, finally, like there was hope.
“I closed my eyes and, for a moment, it all felt normal, it could have been a fall football night,” Beam said.
Meanwhile, Escalon School District continues to have students at all grade levels on campus and on minimal distance learning in a hybrid schedule, while other high schools in the region are working toward returning to the classrooms.
Slowly, the state is opening back up with more counties moving to less restrictive tiers, and COVID cases and hospitalization rates slowly dropping.
And with schools such as Escalon often seen as the major heartbeat in the community, that continued mode of recovery is welcomed.
“Girls golf, boys tennis, cross country and football are going well. They are going relatively smoothly, with a minimal amount of issues. It’s great that the student-athletes are getting opportunities to compete in the sports that they have missed out on over the past year,” EHS Athletic Director Nate Bartelink offered.
In addition, he said baseball, softball, track, boys and girls soccer, boys golf, girls tennis, boys and girls basketball, volleyball and wrestling are all starting at different points over the next month.
Currently, the California Department of Public Health is mandating that schools limit spectator attendance to immediate household members, which will generally be two spectators per participant.
“We know this inconvenience will be frustrating for all those that want to attend, but we must abide by the state and county guidelines so that EHS student-athletes are allowed to continue participating. We appreciate the community’s understanding as we make an effort to follow the rules and help maintain a safe environment for everyone in attendance,” Bartelink said.
The athletic director also noted that as difficult as it would be “preparing for all of these sports at one time under normal circumstances” it will be a huge challenge when adding in COVID protocols and guidelines, which can change at a moment’s notice.
“There will be some difficulties managing facility conflicts and multi-sport athletes playing more than one sport at the same time, but we’ll do everything within our power to make it work in the best interest of the student-athletes so that they can continue competing, end the school year on a positive note, and hopefully get a little closer to some sort of normalcy,” Bartelink said.