Football is officially underway for athletes at Turlock and Pitman high schools, who finally donned pads and helmets during practice this week in preparation for competition next Friday.
The five-game Central California Athletic League season will kick off March 19 and sees the Bulldogs welcome Downey High to Joe Debely Stadium, while the Pride will travel to take on Enochs High at Dan Gonsalves Stadium in Modesto. Under readjusted state guidelines, all sports can begin competing as long as they follow the same COVID guidelines in place at the college level, including weekly and periodic testing of athletes until the daily case rate in Stanislaus County falls below seven per 100,000 residents.
Turlock Unified School District tested 244 football players at both high schools with zero positive results this week, clearing the way for practice to begin.
Pitman varsity head coach Lance Weckerle was eager to get back on the field with his team after months of waiting for a green light from the state, he said. When conditioning was shut down due to spikes in local COVID cases on two separate occasions in June and October, Weckerle shed tears at the thought of his senior athletes missing out on their last football season.
This week, however, Weckerle cried tears of joy. For nearly a year, practices have been replaced by countless Zoom calls, where the athletes’ mental health was a priority rather than the x’s and o’s.
“It was a huge weight lifted off of our shoulders. For the seniors to finally get that opportunity was really special,” Weckerle said. “When we got the go ahead on Monday, it was like we finally got to that light at the end of the tunnel and hope was restored.”
Since practice resumed, Weckerle said he’s seen an improvement in his players’ grades and attitudes toward school in general.
Varsity players at Turlock have been upbeat this week, too, said head coach James Peterson, happy to have a football back in their hands in place of virtual meetings and contactless conditioning drills.
“It gets to a point where you can only do so many things without a football and without equipment — that’s real football when you have those things,” Peterson said. “Really, you don’t know what kind of team you have until the first day of pads.”
The Bulldogs are coming off of a 2019 season which saw the team emerge as CCAL champions with a 5-0 league record for the second consecutive year. They finished 9-3 overall after ultimately falling short in the second round of the Sac-Joaquin Section D-I playoffs.
While COVID put a stop to any playoffs or championships this season, Peterson expects the team to thrive this year under a new offensive strategy — although it’s unclear who will be starting under center for the ‘Dogs next Friday.
There are plenty of options for Peterson to run with when it comes to the quarterback position, including senior Dason Evans, senior Cade Gilbert and his brother, sophomore Cole Gilbert, who have all taken snaps at QB this week. Junior QB Beau Green is also back at Turlock after transferring to private Catholic school Mater Dei last fall in an attempt to play amid COVID restrictions.
Despite just a partial 2018 freshman season at Downey under his belt which was cut short due to a shoulder injury, Green has received scholarship offers from respected football programs like Auburn. Until he is cleared to throw, Peterson said Green could be used in a variety of positions this season, like slot receiver, running back or even a defensive role.
“He’s still rehabbing from that injury and it’s been a while, but it’s getting better and he’s confident about it,” Peterson said. “He’s a heck of a player; his mindset is above and beyond when it comes to high school players. He’s just a good football player and can play any position.”
Other players Peterson expects to make an impact this season include returning linebacker Ashton Baucom, who impressed last season as a sophomore, as well as senior safety Brenden Carne, and senior tight end David Cruz. The Bulldog secondary also received a boost this year with the transfer of senior cornerback Tyzhaun Johnson to Turlock from Orestimba High School, who Peterson said has impressed coaches early on.
The team is filled with a mix of experienced seniors and young talent such as sophomore JT Foreman, whose speed will contribute on both offense and defense.
“I think we really just want to take it one game at a time...coaches have said it’s kind of like the spring ball we’ve never had and I agree with that,” Peterson said. “We have a great program and the guys that have come up from the lower levels are ready to play.”
Weckerle estimated that the Pride has seven or eight junior varsity-level players who will dress out and get some reps at the varsity level this season, though there are also plenty of returners ready to start the season with a vengeance come Friday.
Pitman finished the 2019 season 1-4 in CCAL play and 2-8 overall in Weckerle’s first season as head coach. This season, the offense will be led by senior QB Jarod Moren and anchored by senior offensive pieces Jesse Luna and Sergio Romo. Weckerle said senior Landyn Magina could contribute at QB as well, and the offensive line will feature key returners in junior Colton Salsig and seniors Edgar Gonzalez and Lorenzo Marquez.
On the defensive side of the ball, senior Emilio Gutierrez and junior Noah Sitala will be key leaders on the line while senior Larry Romero is one to watch in the secondary.
“We were young last year, so we have a lot of returning guys leading the way this year,” Weckerle said. “We just want to execute what we have with who we have and hope that’s enough for the scoreboard to be in our favor...Last year we were probably over prepared and maybe a little lacking in our fundamentals. This year, the fundamentals are pretty much all we’ve been able to take care of. We’re going to try to do what we want to do as best as we can do it.”
No matter the score at the end of the games next week, both teams will be happy to be back under the Friday night lights.
“I think it will be healing for everybody — the athletes, the coaches, the parents, the community,” Weckerle said. “I think it will be a good opportunity to try and bring the community back together and move forward.”