The time is 7 p.m. on Friday and the bleachers at Hilmar High’s McSweeney Field are empty. The grass on the field is overgrown and unmarked by chalk and standing in the center of it all is Seth Miguel, senior quarterback for the Yellowjackets.
In a perfect world, Miguel would be in pads and surrounded by his teammates, waiting for a much-anticipated opening kickoff against Patterson High. Instead, he dons work clothes and laments the postponement of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Football is so prominent in my life and in a lot of my teammates’ lives. That’s how we met most of our friends and how we bonded,” Miguel said as he scanned the eerily quiet stadium. “It’s disappointing.”
Miguel, like so many other high school athletes in the area, was shocked when conditioning and practices were halted during the summer and it was announced that January, not August, would mark the start of athletics.
“I was pretty surprised, honestly. I thought everything was going smoothly but it hit the team pretty hard,” Miguel said.
For Miguel, the season’s postponement meant a delay to his return as Hilmar’s starting quarterback — a major setback for someone who helped lead Hilmar to a Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI Championship appearance a year prior.
For others, like Denair High’s David Sutton, it means a delay to a long-awaited debut as his team’s offensive leader.
“I’m kind of bummed out because I’ve waited for this season for a whole year,” Sutton said. “I was ready to take the reins.”
Having played football in Denair since the age of six, Sutton watched as the Coyotes strung together their most successful back-to-back seasons in school history with SJS Division VII Championship and California Interscholastic Federation Division 7-AA State Championship wins in 2018 and a SJS Division VII Championship appearance in 2019.
With three-year varsity quarterback Elvis Silva graduated, Friday was supposed to be Sutton’s time to shine against Vacaville Christian High in a game the Coyote hoped would bring him his first touchdown pass as a high school quarterback. Instead, he was at home watching television with his parents and dogs.
“I thought we matched up well against them and I was ready to have a home opener and just go and play because I haven’t played for a whole year so I’m itching to get out there,” Sutton said. “I want to prove that I can run the offense.”
Like Sutton, Pitman High’s Jarod Moren was also primed to make a potential debut at quarterback as a senior on Friday when the Pride were slated to host Central Valley High.
Part of a three-way competition with last year’s starter Landyn Magina and backup Anthony Manzo, Moren was emerging as the leading favorite to lead Pitman back to its winning ways before practices were halted in July.
“Our coach had been talking to us about how Central Valley would be a good game for us. He said they have a really good running game and have a lot of people returning, just like us, and that they’re season wasn’t what they had hoped for either,” Moren said. “A lot of motivation for the whole team, not just me, is the thought that we were the first team in Pitman football history last year to not have at least an even record…We were ready to go show people who we are.”
Instead of introducing the new Pitman Pride squad, Moren was at home doing school work.
Although the postponement proved to be inconvenient for a Pitman team eager for redemption, rival Turlock High has found it equally so during a season its players expected to be a breakthrough season.
“The expectations for this season was a section championship and that would have started with St. Mary’s on the road in Stockton,” Cade Gilbert said.
In a unique situation compared to the other quarterbacks, the Gilbert brothers were expected to heavily contribute to the Bulldogs offense in 2020 with senior Cade at running back and third-string quarterback and sophomore Cole filling the spot at backup quarterback. Now, in these times of uncertainty, the two brothers are preparing for the unexpected as their first game of the season in January looms on the horizon.
“Knowing that I might get a chance (to play) and that I’m going to have to be ready, I think I achieved that. I am ready,” Cole Gilbert said. “Last year, playing with JV, I got to close to all of our teammates and we had a good bond. Going into this year I knew they had my back if I got in there that we’d have good chemistry.”
“Me being the third backup option and him being more of the guy, I’m just excited to catch passes from my brother. That chemistry we already have and working out every single day, it’s going to be bread and butter,” Cade Gilbert said. “As far as sharing time, I know he’s got my back and I have his back and we’re going to be on the sideline pushing each other every day.”
Instead of dwelling on what should have been, Cole and Cade were getting ready to lift weights and work out Friday night.
“We want to be able to play today, we want to be able to play soon, but we know it’s not going to happen. It’s only going to make it that much sweeter when we do get to play,” the senior Cade Gilbert said.
Although not being able to play Friday was hurtful for the players, most were able to find a silver lining to the unique circumstances.
“I think it’s going to force us to adapt though,” Moren said.
“Myself and some of the guys are just trying to take advantage of this opportunity. We have five extra months to get that much bigger, that much faster and that much stronger. We just want to take advantage of all this extra time that we have,” Miguel said. “It fuels the fire even more. More anticipation builds for me.”
This year’s high school football season is set to begin the first week of January.